Effects of Climate Change Visible from Space, NASA Chief Says

Blue Marble from Suomi NPP
A “Blue Marble” image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's Earth-observing satellite — Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth's surface taken on Jan. 4, 2012. (Image credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring)

The effects of climate change on Earth can be seen clearly in photos taken by satellites in space, and those images are vital tools in protecting our home planet, NASA chief Charles Bolden wrote today (May 6).

Bolden's comments, which were released on his NASA blog, followed the release of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment report today by the White House. According to the report, the fallout from human-induced climate change will result in more extreme weather events, longer and hotter summers and other extreme regional effects. Some of those effects, like more frequent wildfires and coastal flooding, are visible from space.

"We can already see the impacts of climate change around the world, especially through the lens of our satellites," Bolden wrote in the blog post today. "The U.S. National Climate Assessment combined observations from NASA's incredible fleet of Earth observation satellites with surface-based and satellite data from our interagency and international partners, to help us understand what’s going on globally in areas such as polar ice, precipitation extremes, temperature change, sea level rise and forest ecosystems." [8 Ways Global Warming Is Already Changing the World]

Bolden wrote that NASA scientists and missions were vital to the National Climate Assessment report, and the space agency has big plans in 2014 to continue that role.

"Five NASA Earth Science missions will be launched into space in 2014 alone," Bolden wrote. "Together with NASA’s existing fleet of satellites, airborne missions, researchers, and the unique platform of the International Space Station (ISS), these new missions will help answer some of the critical challenges facing our planet today and in the future."

In February, NASA and Japan launched the Global Precipitation Measurement core observatory to track global rainfall patterns. The next satellite to launch will be the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2, which is slated to blast off in July to map the carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere. It is a replacement for the first OCO satellite, which was lost during a failed launch in 2009.

Two of the new climate-monitoring NASA instruments will be delivered to the International Space Station. The RapidScat instrument will monitor ocean wind speeds and direction, while the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System will use light-detection and ranging (or lidar) to track dust, smoke and other particles in Earth's atmosphere.

Finally, NASA will launch the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission in November to study soil moisture around the world, as well as monitor the timing of freeze thaws.

"All of the data NASA collects is widely disseminated and helps many people to make wise decisions about how we care for our planet, as well as predict and cope with changes in climate and extreme weather events," Bolden wrote. "The National Climate Assessment is an example of how critical the NASA data and research are."

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.