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July 1st, 2014
Can we afford to ignore the importance of Earth observation for carbon and climate accounting?

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We’re on the eve of the launch of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 2, a direct copy of a satellite that was lost in a rocket failure more than five years ago. This sensor’s promises to accurately account for the global measure of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere, both for CO2 emitted, and for the effectiveness of plants to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, will be a major scientific contribution should tomorrow’s launch and subsequent satellite provisioning succeed.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve had to wait for five years for this follow-on mission. In this intervening time, we’ve had to suffer with a very similar failure in the launch of the Glory satellite that contained instruments to study the energy produced from the sun alongside the role of particles in our atmosphere that trap this energy. There have also been cuts to Earth observation missions designed to gather other details on the climate, with the demise of the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) and the Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) missions. Despite the growing concerns of the impacts of climate change, we have lacked the calibrated and continuous measurements to verify what’s happening with the global carbon cycle, and it’s hard not to imagine what we may have gained from these measurements.

Insight for Improved Policy

Certainly, it’s difficult to assign world-changing status to one or two sensors or programs that have failed or stalled. The international space community has moved forward on other instruments, and there are commercial instruments that are helpful in other Earth monitoring missions. However, it’s at the very least disconcerting that so much has gone wrong with the scientific mission to measure carbon cycles closely with sensors that are specifically designed for this detection.

Who’s to say what works to drive policy forward in today’s political climate, and yet it’s hard not to think about the benefits that five years of carbon missions would have had for a clearer understanding of the global warming issue. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory is a unique and exciting sensor that measures both the impacts of man and nature’s capacity to improve the overall carbon picture.

Lack of Long-term Vision

The Government Accountability Office released a report in 2010 that singled out the lack of focus on Earth observation satellites, saying that there has been a decade worth of underfunding with gaps and our capacity dwindling. At that time, NASA had 15 Earth-sensing satellites in orbit with 12 of those past their design lifetimes.  At present the picture isn’t that much better, with 10 satellites on extended missions, but with recent successes that include Landsat-8 and most importantly the continuity of measurement from that pioneering mission.

The commercialization of space has happened in a big way in the past few years, with a growing number of Earth observing satellite constellations, and even a bold mission that’s looking toward the colonization of Mars. And yet, the American spirit of exploration and discovery is sadly waning or has perhaps been in part commandeered by an agenda aimed at maintaining the status quo in terms of energy and transportation emissions. While that’s a grim and accusatory bottom line, something needs to happen to excite further Earth observation in light of its decline.

Looking Up

If you look back five years ago, at the dawn of the Great Recession, things were much grimmer for both the economy and our environmental outlook. There was increasing call for a climate agenda, and hope for more concrete means to make bold changes that would drive down our carbon footprints. While no major single thing has been done to reverse the carbon and climate trend, many smaller things have had an impact such as increased use of natural gas over coal, the continued drop of the cost of solar panels, the success of electric cars, more efficient buildings, and more.

Just this past week, former vice president Al Gore wrote a detailed feature for Rolling Stone magazine that pointed to hope and progress for a low-carbon future. It would have been hard to imagine a silver lining even one year ago, and yet so many market-driven changes have had a positive impact.

While the picture is much more positive, we’re certainly still going to see repercussions from climate change. The next gains are going to be more difficult, and will need improved carbon measurements to find and mitigate the worst emitters. Through it all, science remains above an agenda, simply moving us toward the monitoring and measurement that will lend improved clarity of Earth systems, and hopefully some answers to help reverse damaging impacts. Hopefully the OCO-2 mission will live up to its predecessors promise, and in the process spur change and improve the prospects of future Earth observation missions.

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