Updated: Aug 17
When we think about NASA, we tend to think about space travel and exploring other dimensions of our galaxy. What most Americans might not know about one of the most beloved federal agencies is that the NASA Earth Science division, the one that studies our planet, has been operating for almost 50 years. Not only that, the division has been responsible for collecting and reporting some of the most groundbreaking data on our planet and the effects of climate change. We can learn a great deal about our changing planet from the ground, but much more can and is being discovered from space.
Through Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advancements in the last few decades, scientists at NASA have shown the effects of climate change on the entire planet’s ecosystem, including rising carbon levels and temperatures, rising sea levels, melting ice, more severe weather patterns and even the deaths of coral reefs. Their satellite work even led to the Montreal Protocol and strict international bans on chlorofluorocarbon. And that’s just the beginning.
NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite is set to launch in 2022 in partnership with SpaceX and plans to measure changes to the ocean’s food webs, in turn showing how the acidification of our oceans affects different aspects of its ecosystems. PACE also plans to capture data on how phytoplankton use energy from the sun and filter carbon from the environment, lending more insight into the role our oceans will continue to play in the fight against rising carbon dioxide levels.
Beyond satellite projects, NASA’s initiatives on Mars have sought answers about the red planet’s climate and its similarity to ours. Scientists generally agree that Mars was a much wetter planet a few billion years back and may have been quite similar to Earth in more ways than one. In 2014, NASA launched the Maven spacecraft to get a clearer picture of Mars’ atmosphere and understand how and why it became the dry, arid planet it is now.
With the planned launch of the United Arab Emirates space program comes plans to further study the climate on Mars and learn what the long term effects of a changing climate have meant for the planet, and could mean for ours. Instruments will be used to gather information on the planet’s cloud systems, carbon dioxide cycles and temperatures. Scientists also seek to better understand UV rays in the lower atmosphere and how quickly hydrogen and oxygen escape Mars’ upper atmosphere. All of this information could help predict what we are in for here on Earth.
With all of this land and space explorations comes an abundance of data. Fortunately, NASA shares many of its findings online, even our planet’s vital signs, which it reports monthly. This data shows that not only are carbon dioxide levels on the rise, it also takes readers through temperature anomalies and rates of change to arctic sea ice, ice sheets and sea levels.
We have so much to learn from space exploration about our own planet and the change taking place around us every day. Greater collaboration across the private sector and internationally ensure that space exploration is here to stay, and along with it, greater research into climate change and the human behaviors that most affect our planet. These data points, readily available to all, make it clear that we are responsible for climate change, but also that we still have the opportunity and ability to reverse some of the damage.
Catherine is an avid supporter of environmentalism and sustainability at home and worldwide. She earned her bachelor's in political science and journalism and loves to explore how social issues are shaped by law and politics. When she's not blogging for the Tangency Foundation, Catherine works in communications and public relations at a national law firm. You can find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Stolz.