For years, we have expanded our technological advances within our own atmosphere and beyond it. Now, it is time to analyze the atmosphere itself. The accelerated rate of air pollution, rising sea levels and increasing global temperatures have put the Earth and its inhabitants in a dire situation, and if nothing else, we need definitive answers to end the debate over the causes of climate change. The solution, however, may not be found on Earth itself, but rather, beyond it, watching from above. Satellites and space probes have long been valued assets to climate research, but new projects are being proposed to monitor specific circumstances such as air pollution and its effects. These projects, however, now face a series of challenges that could jeopardize atmospheric research. It is therefore crucial that these projects receive the funding and support they require to allow us to better analyze our environment on a global scale.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been a leading contributor to groundbreaking climate research done from outer space. The program has had a long history of successful climate-related missions, from the Aura satellite measuring ozone regulation in the atmosphere to the Jason one, two and three missions targeted at measuring rising ocean levels (“Global” para 14). Additionally, NASA has played a significant role in conducting research from the outer atmosphere for decades, serving as a key contributor to the Global Change Research Program in the early 1990s by collecting “global data from space” (“Global” para 4). These successes and long-standing contributions to the study of climate serve as a testament to NASA’s crucial role in the study of our planet and its environment. However, the program acknowledges that “there is still a lot to learn” (“Global” para 5). Even now, new missions are being proposed that will give us more accurate and up-to-date depictions of the effects of our warming planet. The Sentinel-6A mission, in partnership with SpaceX, is scheduled for 2020 and will record and photograph vertical rises in sea levels (Lucchesi). The Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory pathfinder (CLARREO) is designed to capture high-resolution climate projections. As new advances in technology allow for more sophisticated equipment in these missions, it is necessary that this research continues, especially when 97 percent of published climate scientists agree that “Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” and sixteen of seventeen of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2001 (“Global” para 9).
However, while NASA is developing missions to study our atmosphere and oceans, changes in the current political climate indicate that some of these projects may have to wait — indefinitely. Budget proposals under the Trump administration would shift money away from climate research in NASA to focus on deep space exploration. An evaluation from Scientific American shows the relatively mild budget cuts that would affect NASA — about one percent. However, it shows a much higher proposed relative decrease in earth science funding of nearly $100 million dollars and the termination of four climate satellites, “including one already in orbit” (Thompson para 2). Under our current administration, the program will see projects such as CLARREO and others designed to monitor carbon dioxide levels and ocean health scrapped, which, while saving money in the short run, will ultimately hinder our efforts to not only study global warming, but to predict natural disasters and droughts in the future. (Khan para 3).
In addition to facing budget challenges, the program is also on track to see the appointment of elected officials, rather than scientists, to head the department, an unprecedented shift that could change the course of the entire agency. Many of these officials, namely nominated director and current Oklahoma representative Jim Bridenstine, have expressed doubt about the role of humans in climate change and argue that climate research should not be a significant part of the program. Bob Walker, an advisor to the Trump campaign, sums up this stance in a Washington Post article, stating that that, “We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research,” and that “earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission” (Samenow). While space exploration is an integral responsibility of NASA, it is not the only objective of the agency. These stances against NASA’s role in climate research do not consider the advancements that the agency has already made in Earth studies or the direct correlation between space technology and the research that can continue to be done within our atmosphere. Additionally, when other programs such as the Environmental Protection Agency, one of those “other agencies,” are subject to budget cuts of up to 31% ($2.6 billion) under the Trump administration, it may fall to agencies such as NASA to continue conducting groundbreaking climate research with its own resources (Khan para 12).
Climate change is currently a controversial political topic, even if it is not controversial within the scientific community. However, the innovation of space technology in the last half-century has given us a unique opportunity to evaluate the extent of existing climate issues objectively and with a new level of precision in addition to projecting a future of possibilities. The decisions to conduct research and provide funding for these missions, however, should not be motivated by politics. Satellite imaging and new atmospheric technology utilize scientific efforts and resources that should be conducted for the acquisition of knowledge without any involvement of a political agenda or political proponents. To carry out these missions, though, we cannot leave the issue of climate as an unknown. We have a moral obligation to society and posterity to make sure we are informed about our effect on the planet and to ensure that we take care of it. NASA has the means to accomplish this task, and with our support we can help it continue to form a clearer picture of the complexities of our planet from above.
“Global Climate Change: History.” NASA. NASA, 24 Feb. 2017. Web.
Khan, Amina. “Trump’s Budget Plan for NASA Focuses on Studying Space, Not Climate Change – LA Times.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 16 Mar. 2017. Web.
Lucchesi, Nick. “NASA Just Tapped SpaceX to Continue One of the Scariest Climate Studies.” Inverse. Inverse Innovation, 19 Oct. 2017. Web.
Samenow, Jason. “Trump Adviser Proposes Dismantling NASA Climate Research.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 23 Nov. 2016. Web.
Thompson, Andrea. “Trump Budget Cuts ‘Critical’ NASA Climate Missions.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 Apr. 2017. Web.
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