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When a NASA satellite plunged into the ocean last month instead of reaching orbit, climate scientists winced. The satellite would have provided new information about the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its role in global warming. And the loss was especially painful because the nations existing climate satellites are getting old. As NPRs Jon Hamilton reports, that means the U.S. is likely to lose critical eyes in the sky just when it needs them most.
JON HAMILTON: For a decade, a satellite known as QuikSCAT has been sending back important data about ocean winds and hurricanes, things that are affected by the changing climate. But that stream of data could end any day now.
Ms. KATHY KELLY (University of Washington): Oh, its way past due. Its amazing that it still works.
HAMILTON: Kathy Kelly is an oceanographer at the University of Washington. She says a proposed replacement for QuikSCAT wont be launched for years. Whats worse, the replacement is really designed for weather forecasting, so its not accurate enough to do climate research. The problem goes beyond QuikSCAT. Weather satellites arent designed to measure most of the stuff you need to monitor the climate, things like the thickness of ice sheets, the exact temperature of oceans, and the chemical composition of the atmosphere. And Kelly says many of the satellites that do measure these things are expected to go out of service in the next few years.
Ms. KELLY: Well be blind for maybe a decade. And the Europeans will be putting up sun sensors, and that covers some holes. So well have some information. The problem is, is the climate record.
HAMILTON: To be useful, the climate record has to be highly accurate and span decades without any gaps. Kelly says thats because climate change is happening in tiny increments over many years.
Ms. KELLY: For instance, with sea level were looking that three millimeters a year, is the signal. Its tiny, and so every little bit of error matters.
HAMILTON: In the 1980s and early 1990s, it looked like scientists were going to get the tools they needed to monitor climate change. But Bruce Wielicki, a climate scientist at NASA, says that ambitious program soon ran into budget cuts and delays, and more budget cuts.
Dr. BRUCE WIELICKI (NASA): So now, were literally sitting there with a system that got up, was successful, would have been actually continued for the next 10 or 15 years in the initial NASA plan, but now there are no continuing satellites or spacecraft. So were basically sitting at the edge of a cliff.
HAMILTON: Wielicki says money is only part of the problem. Climate change is an issue that has fallen between two agencies: NASA, the space agency, and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wielicki says NOAA's top priorities have been fisheries and weather. NASA has focused on putting people in space and doing space science, not Earth science.
Dr. WIELICKI: So you end up with two agencies, who are the primary climate agencies, having climate as third priority. So how are you going to get climate done? And the answer is, you're not.
HAMILTON: To address the organizational problem, Jane Lubchenco, the Obama administrations pick to run NOAA, plans to create a National Climate Service. And to help with the money problem, the president's stimulus package includes hundreds of millions of dollars for climate research, including new satellites. Wielicki says thats all good, but it will take a long time for those steps to have any effect.
Dr. WIELICKI: The quickest you can get any new sensor up, from when you seriously start it, is on the order of five years, and it can be as long as 10. So youve got to be thinking long-term in this problem.
HAMILTON: In the meantime, old satellites will probably give out before new ones go up. That will create gaps in the record, and those gaps will make it harder to predict things like how much the oceans will rise, or how hot summers will be three decades from now. Tom Karl, who directs climate services at NOAA, says this is an urgent problem because satellite data will influence how the U.S. spends hundreds of billions of dollars to prepare for climate change.
Dr. TOM KARL (Director, NOAA): What are we going to do with airports? What are we going to do with the transportation sector? Water is going to be a major issue. There are some suggestions that water in the future, from just the climate change in the next several decades, could be a tough issue to deal with in some parts of the world, particularly the subtropics, as we see expect drying to occur. Theres even concerns in the southwest part of the U.S.
HAMILTON: It will take more and better satellites to tell us how concerned we should be.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.