When it comes to climate change, we play a unique role in observing and understanding changes to the planet. Thanks to NASA’s Earth observations and related research, we know our planet and its climate are changing profoundly. We also know human activities, like releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, are driving this change.
Not only do we make these observations, we help people and groups use this knowledge to benefit society. The work we do at NASA is critical to helping us understand the ways our planet is responding to increased temperatures.
Here are 6 ways that we are involved in climate science and informing decisions:
1. Monitoring Earth’s vital signs
Just like a doctor checks your vitals when you go in for a visit, here at NASA we are constantly monitoring Earth’s vital signs – carbon dioxide levels, global temperature, Arctic sea ice minimum, the ice sheets and sea level, and more.
We use satellites in space, observations from airplanes and ships, and data collected on the ground to understand our planet and its changing climate. Scientists also use computers to model and understand what’s happening now and what might happen in the future.
People who study Earth see that the planet’s climate is getting warmer. Earth’s temperature has gone up more than 1 degree Celsius (~2 degrees Fahrenheit) in the last 100 years. This may not seem like much, but small changes in Earth’s temperature can have big effects. The current warming trend is of particular significance, because it is predominantly the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and is proceeding at an unprecedented rate.
People drive cars. People heat and cool their houses. People cook food. All those things take energy. Human-produced greenhouse gas emissions are largely responsible for warming our planet. Burning fossil fuels – which includes coal, oil, and natural gas – releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where they act like an insulating blanket and trap heat near Earth’s surface.
At NASA, we use satellites and instruments on board the International Space Station to confirm measurements of atmospheric carbon levels. They’ve been increasing much faster than any other time in history.
2. Tracking global land use and its impacts
We also monitor and track global land use. Currently, half the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2025, the United Nations projects that number will rise to 60%.
With so many people living and moving to metropolitan areas, the scientific world recognizes the need to study and understand the impacts of urban growth both locally and globally.
The International Space Station helps with this effort to monitor Earth. Its position in low-Earth orbit provides variable views and lighting over more than 90% of the inhabited surface of Earth, a useful complement to sensor systems on satellites in higher-altitude polar orbits. This high-resolution imaging of land and sea allows tracking of urban and forest growth, monitoring of hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, documenting of melting glaciers and deforestation, understanding how agriculture may be impacted by water stress, and measuring carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.
3. Research into the causes of climate change
Being able to monitor Earth’s climate from space also allows us to understand what’s driving these changes.
With the CERES instruments, which fly on multiple Earth satellites, our scientists measure the Earth’s planetary energy balance – the amount of energy Earth receives from the Sun and how much it radiates back to space. Over time, less energy being radiated back to space is evidence of an increase in Earth’s greenhouse effect. Human emissions of greenhouse gases are trapping more and more heat.
NASA scientists also use computer models to simulate changes in Earth’s climate as a result of human and natural drivers of temperature change.
These simulations show that human activities such as greenhouse gas emissions, along with natural factors, are necessary to simulate the changes in Earth’s climate that we have observed; natural forces alone can’t do so.
4. Research into the effects of climate change
Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers and ice sheets have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted, and trees are flowering sooner.
Climate modelers have predicted that, as the planet warms, Earth will experience more severe heat waves and droughts, larger and more extreme wildfires, and longer and more intense hurricane seasons on average. The events of 2020 are consistent with what models have predicted: extreme climate events are more likely because of greenhouse gas emissions.
Plants are also struggling to keep up with rising carbon dioxide levels. Plants play a key role in mitigating climate change. The more carbon dioxide they absorb during photosynthesis, the less carbon dioxide remains trapped in the atmosphere where it can cause temperatures to rise. But scientists have identified an unsettling trend – 86% of land ecosystems globally are becoming progressively less efficient at absorbing the increasing levels of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Helping organizations to use all the data and knowledge NASA generates is another part of our job. We’ve helped South Dakota fight West Nile Virus, helped managers across the Western U.S. handle water, helped The Nature Conservancy protect land for shorebirds, and others. We also support developing countries as they work to address climate and other challenges through a 15-year partnership with the United States Agency for International Development.
5. Action on sustainability
Sustainability involves taking action now to enable a future where the environment and living conditions are protected and enhanced. We work with many government, nonprofit, and business partners to use our data and modeling to inform their decisions and actions. We are also working to advance technologies for more efficient flight, including hybrid-electric propulsion, advanced materials, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.
These advances in research and technology will not only bring about positive changes to the climate and the world in which we live, but they will also drive the economic engine of America and our partners in industry, to remain the world-wide leader in flight development.
We partner with the private sector to facilitate the transfer of our research and NASA-developed technologies. Many innovations originally developed for use in the skies above help make life more sustainable on Earth. For example:
- Our Earth-observing satellites help farmers produce more with less water.
- Expertise in rocket engineering led to a technique that lessens the environmental impact of burning coal.
- A fuel cell that runs equipment at oil wells reduces the need to vent greenhouse gases.
6. Applying climate research to preserve NASA centers in coastal areas
Sea level rise in the two-thirds of Earth covered by water may jeopardize up to two-thirds of NASA’s infrastructure built within mere feet of sea level.
Some NASA centers and facilities are located in coastal real estate because the shoreline is a safer, less inhabited surrounding for launching rockets. But now these launch pads, laboratories, airfields, and testing facilities are potentially at risk because of sea level rise. We’ve worked internally at NASA to identify climate risks and support planning at our centers.
NASA Climate Science
Climate change is one of the most complex issues facing us today. It involves many dimensions – science, economics, society, politics, and moral and ethical questions – and is a global problem, felt on local scales, that will be around for decades and centuries to come. With our Eyes on the Earth and wealth of knowledge on the Earth’s climate system and its components, we are one of the world’s experts in climate science.