Defunding Our Eyes on the Planet
May 3, 2016
In recent weeks, one of the important satellite monitors of arctic sea ice, a critical control on global weather and climate, (see elsewhere on this page) failed.
My recent video, above, raised the alarm about congressional climate deniers who are squeezing funding for our satellite eyes on the home planet. This is a long term hobby horse for the anti science crowd.
From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”
In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”
Understanding and protecting the only place in the universe that sustains human life is understood by climate deniers to be a dangerous, radical, and subversive activity.
Imagine hurricane season without weather satellites. Since the satellite era we are not surprised about a storm the way the people of Galveston were over a century ago. Many climatologists are sounding the alarm that our fleet of satellites that monitor Arctic sea ice is on life support (and that may be generous). This matters to you and is frankly not just about polar bears.
Satellites carrying passive microwave sensors are essential for monitoring sea ice because only these sensors have the capability to see through clouds and dark of night to capture a continuous and complete record of sea ice every day. This sea ice time series is now nearing 40 years in length, making it one of the longest continuous satellite-derived climate datasets. The loss of these satellites would effectively end the consistent record of Arctic sea ice decline.
When I asked Dr. Meier about the current status of the fleet he told me,
DMSP-F19 (part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) is definitely dead. DMSP-F17 is still operational except one channel (37 GHz, V polarization) of SSMIS. Unfortunately, that’s an essential channel for the sea ice algorithms. DMSP-F18 is still fully capable, at least for the sea ice channels, which is what we’re planning to switch to. The Japanese AMSR2 sensor is also available. That’s not as optimal for the long-term record because, even though it’s more modern, it’s not as consistent
This is a patchwork fix. Long-term issues are clearly evident as F18 is an aging system A DMSP-F20 is built and in storage but funding was not allocated by Congress to launch it. We may need to rethink that decision. Many of us have warned of these looming gaps for weather and climate monitoring.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced in March that Arctic sea ice was at a record low in terms of maximum extent for the second straight year (see this NASA animation for a good visual aid). NSIDC director Dr. Mark Serreze stated in a press release,
I’ve never seen such a warm, crazy winter in the Arctic….The heat was relentless.”
Arctic sea ice has a seasonal cycle. It typically increases through the cool seasons with a maximum around the middle of March. It retreats through the warm season months and is usually at a minimum extent by the middle of September. NSIDC notes,
The September Arctic minimum began drawing attention in 2005 when it first shrank to a record low extent over the period of satellite observations. It broke the record again in 2007, and then again in 2012. The March Arctic maximum has typically received less attention.
Sea ice affects the large scale global ocean circulation patterns as well as weather patterns. Professor Tom Mote is a hydroclimatologist and head of the Geography Department at the University of Georgia. He studies Greenland and other cryospheric processes. He says,
The long-term record of sea ice, in particular, is important to our understanding of the Arctic. Reductions in sea ice amplify warming in the Arctic by increasing the absorption of sunlight (i.e., the ice-albedo feedback). Some scientists believe that a warmer Arctic may change the path of the jet stream, altering weather over further south, including the U.S. (See this paper for a summary of the literature).
Climate models have been conservative with sea ice decline. They have underestimated the amount of change in many cases (see figure).
Doctors monitor a patient’s heart rate trends after surgery. An abrupt disruption in such trend information places that patient in jeopardy. In this case, Earth is the patient.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President