New Satellites Are Changing Climate Science – Mother Jones


The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket is seen because it launches with the NASA Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite tv for pc-2 (ICESat-2) onboard, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, Vandenberg Air Power Base in California.Invoice Ingalls/NASA/Getty

This story was initially printed by Undark and seems right here as a part of the Local weather Desk collaboration.

On Sept. 15, 2018, at exactly 6:02 a.m., a Delta II rocket lifted off in a cloud of fireplace and smoke from Vandenberg Air Power Base on the central California coast. The payload, a NASA statement satellite tv for pc often known as ICESat-2, measured roughly the scale of an vehicle, and weighed in at 3,338 kilos. At an altitude 310 miles above the Earth, the satellite tv for pc decoupled from the rocket and moved into orbit. After that, its work started.

Touring across the planet at 15,660 mph, ICESat-2 started aiming a six-beam, green-spectrum laser towards Earth’s floor. Its aim for the subsequent three years—and maybe so long as seven years, if its equipment continued working—can be to continuously measure the glaciers, ice sheets, sea ice, oceans, and tree canopies far under.

The launch wasn’t a lot of a information story. When the mission started, there was little speak of massive breakthroughs or revolutionary concepts. Certainly, even the satellite tv for pc’s identify (it acts as a substitute for the primary ICESat, which was launched in 2003 and burned up upon reentry in 2010) might give the impression that this may be a sequel that wasn’t as thrilling as the unique manufacturing. Since we already know a lot concerning the planet, and particularly how ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are imperiled by a warming local weather, how a lot might it inform us that’s actually new?

Generally evolution could be as essential as revolution, nevertheless. An surprising shock is that ICESat-2 appears in a position to peer down into shallow waters alongside the North American shoreline, offering a priceless new information set. And after solely a short while in orbit, the satellite tv for pc and its orbiting companion, one other satellite tv for pc known as Grace-Fo that launched only a few months earlier, have enriched our observational file of Earth’s cryosphere, or frozen areas. As local weather change alters the planet in methods which are each apparent and arcane, this new technology of remote-sensing satellites is compiling a granular file of what’s occurring on the earth’s most distant and difficult-to-reach latitudes.

In lots of respects, that’s the excellent news about what we’re receiving now from area. The unhealthy information, as information from Antarctica and Greenland filters in, is that the ice sheets have by no means appeared so precarious. “That is actually the massive query in understanding what’s driving the ice sheet conduct—to map out what it’s going to do sooner or later,” stated Felix Landerer, a analysis scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. With higher observations available, our fashions for ice sheets, which aren’t but as exact as atmospheric fashions, can take a big step ahead.

In early 2018, a pivotal ICESat-2 software was within the ultimate levels of building at NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Middle in Greenbelt, Maryland. One afternoon Tom Neumann, then the ICESat-2 deputy undertaking scientist, drove a brief distance from his workplace to a close-by meeting constructing on the Greenbelt campus to have a look. A staff of engineers was placing the ending touches on Atlas, the delicate laser that will be carried by ICESat-2 as its important statement software. As Neumann defined, ICESat stood for ice, cloud, and land elevation satellite tv for pc. Atlas was an acronym for superior topographic laser altimeter system.

The Atlas laser works by sending out trillions of photons in fast pulses. These photons journey 310 miles right down to our planet’s floor, the place they scatter and bounce as they hit ice, water, earth, and treetops. However just a few of those photons are collected as they bounce again as much as the satellite tv for pc. And therein lies a vital measurement. By timing the photons’ path from the emission from Atlas, to the floor of the Earth, after which again to the satellite tv for pc in area, ICESat-2 can discern tiny elevation adjustments on the earth under. If the ice on a glacier in Antarctica or Greenland was to soften and drop even just a few centimeters in elevation over the course of some months, as an example, ICESat-2 would discover. The identical can be true for sea ice.

On the Goddard constructing, Neumann defined: ICESat-2 “is sending out a pulse from six beams, concurrently, 10,000 occasions a second.” That’s a fast charge, he stated, noting, “should you blink your eyes it takes about half a second. In that point, Atlas can have fired its laser 5,000 occasions, amongst six beams, amassing 30,000 measurements.”

Throughout the satellite tv for pc’s orbit, this information can be downloaded on a daily schedule to a floor station in Svalbard, a small group of islands positioned within the northernmost reaches of the Arctic.

Neumann had little doubt that the brand new satellite tv for pc would gather extraordinary quantities of details about the Earth’s polar areas. It additionally appeared apparent to him that it could be a big enchancment on the unique ICESat, which took 40 measurements a second moderately than 10,000. “We’re going to do higher with ice sheets, we’ll do higher with outlet glaciers, we’ll do higher with sea ice,” Neumann stated. “However I’m virtually positive there will likely be one thing we will do with it that we by no means considered earlier than. I had a query a few weeks in the past from someone asking whether or not we might use it to measure penguin heights.” He gave it severe thought. “And I used to be like, yeah, really, in all probability might.”

However he couldn’t really be certain. It was nonetheless half a 12 months earlier than the launch. The primary ICESat mission had finally been hobbled by a catastrophic malfunction in its lasers. Issues might go fallacious right here, too.

Long run information units from satellites don’t stir most people just like the drama of a crewed mission to Mars. However up to now twenty years, Earth statement satellites have arguably modified our view of how the planet is evolving greater than another expertise or field-science endeavor.

The unique ICESat, as an example, was conceived within the mid-1990s, and its launch in January 2003 introduced on the prospect of compiling one thing that had by no means existed earlier than: a gentle measurement of adjustments within the elevation of ice at (and close to to) each poles.

Because it occurred, ICESat was half of a bigger technique. The 12 months earlier than, NASA had launched a special satellite tv for pc that was additionally meant for compiling a file of adjustments within the polar areas. This different satellite tv for pc—often known as Grace, which stood for gravity restoration and local weather experiment—was curious in its expertise and method. Moderately than use a laser altimeter to measure the floor elevation of the Earth, Grace would use variations in Earth’s gravity to measure the motion of water from one place to a different. Not solely would this be helpful in measuring adjustments in Earth’s cryosphere, it is also used to detect decreases in groundwater reserves in locations just like the American Southwest.

The concept was elegant in its simplicity however complicated in its execution. Grace was not one machine however a pair of modules, every concerning the measurement of a small sports activities automotive, despatched into orbit at an altitude of about 300 miles. One module was meant to path the opposite at a distance of 137 miles. The important thing was that every module used an exquisitely delicate microwave communications system to maintain a exact file of tiny adjustments of their 137-mile orbital hole.

Even from a whole lot of miles above the planet, these modules had been delicate to gravitational forces from under. When the main module approached part of Earth with extra mass—and due to this fact extra of a gravitational power—it was pulled forward, actually by a fraction of the width of a human hair. However the power of that tiny pull might in flip be measured by the microwave communication hyperlink.

In order Grace handed over the huge Greenland ice sheet, as an example, the main module would reply to gravitational forces and edge out forward by a hairsbreadth. Over the course of 1000’s of orbits, by measuring the change in distance between the 2 modules—in essence, the change in gravitational power over time—NASA scientists might decide how a lot ice was being misplaced in Greenland and the Antarctic. By 2016, information from Grace indicated that Greenland was shedding, on common, about 286 billion tons per 12 months. Antarctica was in the meantime shedding about 127 billion. And all of that ice was falling into the oceans and elevating sea ranges within the course of.

Satellites don’t final ceaselessly. They run out of the gasoline they use—normally tanks of compressed nitrogen—to make essential orientation corrections in area. Or they undergo technical glitches with batteries or communications gear. Or, like the unique ICESat, their measurement techniques cease working correctly they usually should be introduced down from orbit.

Grace had an awfully long term of 15 years, nevertheless it ceased working in October 2017, and was decommissioned by NASA. By that time, nevertheless, NASA had already been constructing a substitute together with the German Aerospace Middle. The substitute satellite tv for pc was known as “Grace Comply with-On”—or extra merely, Grace-Fo. The machine was almost a precise duplicate of its predecessor, and was launched into area in Could 2018.

Very similar to ICESat-2, the brand new Grace was not the form of undertaking that appeared to stoke the general public creativeness. Its aim was to proceed to provide a long-term file of adjustments right here on Earth, and particularly adjustments within the icy polar areas. What was particularly essential was to measure the Arctic, an space already warming twice as quick as the remainder of the planet, and to keep watch over Antarctica, the place a number of large glaciers on the western a part of the continent—Thwaites specifically, which was concerning the measurement of Florida—seemed to be more and more unstable.

Together with ICESat-2, Grace-Fo started delivering information to the science group not lengthy after launch in 2018. And since then, the second technology of Earth distant sensing satellites—together with CryoSat-2, which is operated by the European Area Company—have continued to talk, with exceptional precision, about what is going on to the Earth in locations few people ever go to.

As of mid-December, ICESat-2 has been operational for about 14 months. Neumann stated lately that the satellite tv for pc had to date taken about 376 billion laser “photographs,” versus 2 billion in complete for the primary ICESat. The quantity of information comprising the brand new observations, in different phrases, has already dwarfed what got here out of your complete unique mission. It was likewise clear, he added, that the Atlas laser on ICESat-2 was far exceeding the scientific staff’s expectations.

From an altitude of 310 miles, the laser has been in a position to see down into crevasses within the ice sheet and measure their depth and width. On the identical time, Atlas was in a position to vary down by means of summer time soften ponds on the Greenland ice sheet and gauge their depth, a sort of measurement that pointed towards a brand new technique to assess how a lot water is pooling on the ice at any given time. Given the truth that Greenland’s ice sheet underwent a rare melting season this previous summer time, this system could show extraordinarily important in understanding how (and the way a lot) the ice sheet melts in hotter months.

What has been particularly stunning to the NASA staff, although, is how ICESat-2’s laser has been in a position to map the shallow water close to numerous coastlines around the globe—a measurement often known as bathymetry. In different phrases, the satellite tv for pc may help create an expansive map of how deep the coastal waters run close to the shore.

This can be essential for flooding projections. A brand new understanding of the depths of the waters round, say, the coast of North Carolina could show particularly helpful for laptop modelers who attempt to plan forward for storm surges made worse by heightened hurricane exercise and sea degree rises introduced on by the retreat of glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland.

In the meantime, the urgency of the scenario within the Arctic—other than Greenland’s summer time meltdown, there was a dramatic retreat of the floating sea ice cowl within the Arctic ocean—makes the brand new satellite tv for pc’s scrutiny all of the extra essential. In latest months, a staff working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been analyzing information from Grace-Fo to see what number of billion tons of ice had been misplaced from Greenland in complete in 2019. (By some preliminary estimates by European scientists, throughout a July heatwave, the Greenland ice sheet misplaced about 11 billion tons of ice throughout simply in the future.)

Landerer, the Grace-Fo mission’s undertaking scientist, stated he’s assured that 2019 was as huge a soften as the present file, which occurred in 2012. “The ultimate tally continues to be out,” he famous, but it’s apparent to him from the information that Greenland’s ice sheet has properly exceeded the typical soften 12 months, that means its losses had been in all probability equal or bigger than 300 billion tons.

What appears to be rising from ICESat-2 and Grace-Fo is greater than information, nevertheless. The 2 upgraded sensing missions work in a complementary method towards a bigger function. In measuring the peak of the polar ice sheets, as an example, ICESat-2 is sweet at assessing adjustments in quantity; in measuring the gravitational pull of the ice, Grace-Fo is sweet at assessing adjustments in mass.

In the meantime, ICESat-2, with its precision laser, provides tremendous spatial decision of thinning glaciers and weak areas—a decision much better than Grace’s. However as a result of ICESat-2 surveys the identical space solely each 91 days, Grace’s frequent monitoring may help fill in gaps. This results in a “information fusion” between the 2 satellite tv for pc data. “The sum of the components right here is de facto greater than the components alone,” stated Landerer.

What’s extra, by incorporating these distant sensing missions with different research (European missions; subject observations by scientists on the ice; and an ongoing NASA mission often known as OMG, or Oceans Melting Greenland, which measures sea temperatures within the Arctic and the way they’re eroding coastal glaciers), scientists can grasp an even bigger image. It’s from these three measurements, ICESat-2, Grace-Fo, and OMG, that “we actually get on the query: What’s the method driving the soften and ice loss?” stated Frank Webb, supervisor of JPL’s Earth Science Analysis and Mission Formulation Workplace.

In different phrases, these sensing instruments are usually not solely exhibiting us what is going on. They’re serving to us see how it’s occurring. The observations present us exactly the place Greenland’s glaciers are thinning essentially the most, and whether or not the unstable areas of West Antarctica—the areas that fear sea-level-rise specialists essentially the most—are shifting right into a part of unstoppable collapse.

After all, this isn’t solely a significant advance in science, however helpful information for hundreds of thousands of individuals dwelling close to the coasts and only a few ft above sea degree. Collectively, ICESat-2, and Grace-Fo will in time give us the chance to higher mannequin the way forward for the polar areas and weak coastal settlements.

And but, these satellites are additionally sentinels of a grim future.

Of their fixed watch they remind us, orbit after orbit, that our world is melting at an accelerating charge. As they exhibit our surpassing technological ingenuity, and as they rain down on us their streams of information, they likewise exhibit our negligence. We watch the planet’s issues unfold and intensify, 12 months by 12 months. And with a God’s eye view, we will now stand by and see it occur in actual time.

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