By Breanna Draxler
NASA has been taking satellite images of the Earth for over half a century. But these satellites are now reaching the end of their lives. And according to an article in Nature News last Friday, the next generation of satellites isn’t ready to take over yet. This could leave a serious gap in data collection, and it could have grave consequences for climate science.
“We cannot manage what we can’t measure,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He emphasized the importance of data continuity for climate science to show changes over time. But at this point, the chances of achieving such continuity are not looking good.
NASA’s Earth Observing System uses polar-orbiting satellites to collect data relating to the Earth’s land, atmosphere and oceans. These data are essential for tracking and predicting climate change. They’re also important for figuring out how to prevent and deal with its effects.
The current generation of these satellites is expected to expire around 2015. Two satellite launches failed in the past two years, which means their replacements are not yet in orbit.
Last Friday, NASA launched a prototype for its Joint Polar Satellite System to improve the accuracy of weather forecasting. But due to budget constraints at NASA, the next generation of satellites is still six or seven years from take-off.
Earth-observation programs need better management and support, said Trenberth. He, along with eight co-authors, submitted a white paper arguing this point to the World Climate Research Programme Conference in Denver, Colorado, last week.
This will hopefully bring scientists one small step closer to launching the next generation of satellites… and closing the climate data gap.
A version of this story was also featured on this week’s episode of How on Earth, KGNU’s science show. Breanna Draxler and Susan Moran hosted the show, which also explored urban parks and the benefits of pythons for heart health. Listen to the podcast at howonearthradio.org.