Trump threatens NASA climate satellite missions as budget remains in limbo

US President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would cut four NASA Earth Observation missions that are critical to ongoing climate change research, as well as to weather and air pollution forecasting.

space missions in peril bec of trump
As a result of Trump’s threatened cuts, international scientific community is scrambling to find a way to replace NASA’s planned Earth Observation missions and continue vital climate change, weather and pollution monitoring. Image: NASA/Expedition 31, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

President Donald Trump recently trumpeted manned exploration to the Moon and Mars by NASA to reclaim “America’s proud destiny in space.” Such manned missions – in advance of human populated space colonies – could be needed sometime soon, as large swathes of the earth are baked to the point of becoming uninhabitable due to climate change.

However, accurately forecasting just how quickly such a scenario might develop on our planet could be difficult, if four major NASA Earth Missions are killed as proposed in Trump’s draconian 2018 budget.

Three of the missions on the chopping block are designed to measure unfolding climate change: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem mission; the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 mission; and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder mission. Trump’s plan is to eliminate these projects entirely and instead focus “the Nation’s efforts on deep space exploration rather than Earth-centric research.”

This does not come as a surprise: the current denialist administration has systematically deleted climate change mentions from the Environmental Protection Agency website, just dropped climate change from being a U.S. national security strategy, and pulled the nation out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Still, the death of NASA’s climate missions isn’t a done deal. A congressional stalemate has resulted in a legislative vote on the 2018 budget being kicked down the road from September 2017 to two dates in December, with 19 January 2018 now set as the next deadline. Going by the answers to Mongabay’s queries to U.S. legislators, it is still impossible to say whether these climate satellites will be cut or not.

What is certain is that losing these missions would have major impacts on the world’s ability to understand the mechanisms of climate change, and on the ability of the international scientific community and world governments to respond proactively to what may lie ahead.

“The danger of not having key Earth Observation data will be enormous,” Angela Benedetti, senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), told Mongabay in an email. (She emphasizes that this is her professional view, rather than reflecting the official position of the ECMWF.)

“Scientists rely on satellite data for very practical applications such as weather prediction, air pollution monitoring and natural hazards,” she explained. “The livelihoods of many depend on accurate predictions not only on longtime scales, but on the scale of a few days. Investing in these data [gathering instruments] will ensure saving money, and most importantly, lives.”

Overall Science funding is stable, although some missions in development will not go forward and others will adjust their schedules.

Stephen Cole, NASA Office of Communications

How did we get here?

Donald Trump’s proposed FY18 NASA budget – with its slated erasure of Earth climate missions – was released last May.

When questioned about these particular cuts, Stephen Cole of the NASA Office of Communications sidestepped the issue. Instead, he praised the proposed budget, saying that it advances the agency’s core activities and enables important ongoing work on Earth, throughout the solar system and beyond.

“While hard choices had to be made in this constrained budget environment – especially in Education and Science – we are pleased by the support we have received,” he said in a statement emailed to Mongabay. “Overall Science funding is stable, although some missions in development will not go forward and others will adjust their schedules.”

Cole stressed that NASA remains committed to studying our home planet: “Our Earth science program today includes 18 missions in orbit, including sensors mounted to the exterior of the International Space Station… Several new missions are nearing launch in the next few years. Slated for 2018 are ICESat-2 and GRACE Follow-On, both of which will contribute to studies of Earth’s changing polar ice sheets and more.”

The NASA official did not directly address Trump’s proposal to shut down the three key climate change missions. Here’s what we could lose if the U.S. Congress follows Trump’s lead when it finally votes on the 2018 budget.

Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE)

Oceans look blue from shore, but there are nuances that we can’t see with the naked eye. However, from space scientists can distinguish the specific species and abundance of phytoplankton flourishing in different regions at different times of year. Researchers are eager to investigate the role these microscopic organism play in ocean ecosystems because phytoplankton are not only at the base of the food chain that feeds much of humanity, but they also soak up CO2, curbing global warming, and release the oxygen we breath through photosynthesis.

It is already known that climate change is causing declines and shifts in phytoplanktonas the oceans heat up and become more acidic. However, scientists need high spectral resolution instruments to see oceans in all their multifaceted glory. By showing everything in the ultraviolet to shortwave infrared range, the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite would do exactly that: offering researchers a more detailed view than ever before of microscopic ocean life, as well as advanced knowledge of aerosol particles and clouds – both critical to understanding how sensitive the earth’s atmosphere is to escalating rates of carbon emissions.

NASA believes PACE’s advanced capabilities would benefit society in many ways. For instance, it would detect harmful algae blooms, enhance fisheries management, improve air quality forecasting, and help study and manage global disasters such as oil spills, hurricanes, volcanic ash plumes, and wildfires.

“I use satellite data from instruments such as those proposed on PACE to produce a more accurate global prediction of aerosols, which in turn is used to feed regional models at higher resolution, which can predict air quality at the local level,” Angela Benedetti told Mongabay, who emphasized that her work deals with what she believes is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk: air pollution.

“In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that in 2012 around 7 million people died – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure,” she explained, noting that a reduction in air pollution could save millions of lives.

However, she warned, our ability to predict the levels of pollution in the atmosphere is contingent on our ability to collect large amount of data as afforded by instruments on satellites such as PACE.

This story was published with permission from Read the full story.


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