In all corners of the world, scientists are gathering data to study the effects that a warming climate has on the earth. But it’s the view from 13 satellites that circle far above the planet that holds some of the most promising potential in predicting those changes.
That was the message that Jack Kaye, associate director for research in NASA’s earth science division, gave to a group of students and faculty at the Dole Institute of Politics Wednesday afternoon. Kaye’s talk was part of a visit to Kansas University.
“One thing about satellites, it gives you access to remote and hostile areas,” Kaye said. “You want to know what is going on over the ocean, over the tropics, over deserts, over a volcano? Without satellites there is no way you are going to do that.”
For an hour, Kaye talked about the satellites that orbit the earth gathering information on the atmosphere, biosphere, seas, ice sheets and clouds. Satellites provide a more comprehensive and continental look at climate change, Kaye said.
Through satellites, scientists have gathered data that shows the amount of sea ice has been significantly reduced, that it is not as thick as it used to be and that there is less old sea ice compared with new sea ice.
“I am a firm believer that climate change is real. It is happening. The physics are fundamentally sound and the data record is enough that we can see things happening,” Kaye told the crowd. “I do believe the planet is getting warmer. When the planet gets warmer, ice is going to melt and sea level will rise.”
While the earth’s most dramatic changes have been found in the polar regions, Kaye said there have been other observations as well.
“We can see changes in biology, we can see changes in the ocean, we can see changes in atmospheric conditions,” Kaye said but noted it can be difficult to discern long-term changes in the midst of frequent short-term variations.
Along with monitoring ice sheets, NASA has been studying how aerosols — which can come from sources as diverse as the soot of fossil fuels, dust from the desert or volcanic ash — affect clouds and precipitation. In two weeks, NASA will launch its next satellite, Glory, which will have a major focus on studying aerosols.
Through satellites NASA has been able to track where ground water levels are dropping, which areas of the earth have a drop in photosynthesis production and where rapid urbanization has occurred.
“We are changing the surface of the earth. And you can see that from a satellite. This is being repeated all over the world. Without satellites it is very hard to see that picture,” Kaye said.