Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Aging and failed satellites jeopardize efforts to collect data on climate change

Emmarie Huetteman in the Washington Post: Shortly after it lifted off in February 2009, NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica. With that, a $250 million investment became scrap metal on the ocean floor and an effort to begin using satellites to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide and trace emission-reduction actions was dealt a huge setback.

Scientists say the information the OCO was intended to collect is a crucial piece of the data needed not only by those monitoring the Earth's environment but also by federal officials struggling to understand possible national security implications of those climate changes.

But the OCO's failure highlighted an even broader problem: Understanding climate change requires a breadth of information on variables from atmospheric carbon dioxide to the condition of Arctic ice, and scientists say that satellites are vital for this. Yet at a time where the massive Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica seems intact one day and then collapses into the sea the next, the system of continuous, reliable satellite observation of Earth is at risk, with some aging satellites in dire need of replacement.

The OCO was "the only satellite in the world that will do the kind of global collection we need," said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and one of the authors of a 2010 report on satellite monitoring of climate change. "And we haven't thought about how to replace it."

Berrien Moore III, an earth scientist who co-chaired a National Research Council committee several years ago on space-based observation of Earth, said climate change predictions based on mathematical models have failed to capture how quickly sea ice would decline. "Thank God for the [satellite] observations, because otherwise we wouldn't have known this is going on," said Moore, vice president for weather and climate programs at the University of Oklahoma…

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory never made it into orbit. The craft crashed into the ocean near Antarctica moments after its launch almost two years ago

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