NASA: Climate Changes Coming Faster Than We Thought

“If we burn all the fossil fuels, we would send the planet back to an ice-free state.” — James Hansen, NASA

A new investigation of the ancient climate record shows that time to stop climate change is running out — maybe sooner than scientists had thought.

That’s the message from an international team of scientists reporting today at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco (#AGU11 on Twitter).

Melt water tumbles through a Greenland ice sheet.

James Hansen is director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and was one of the scientists on the study. He says that even the accepted benchmark of a 2-degree Celsius rise (3.6 F) in temperature that might result from doubling of current carbon dioxide levels would have a much greater impact than was previously thought.

“Once the ice sheets begin to disintegrate, then you’ve got an unstable shoreline, which is going to be continuing to change over time,” said Hansen in a presentation to fellow scientists. “It would be a mess for those people living at that time to deal with. And it looks like that time will be this century.” Continue reading

New Satellite Launched to Watch Climate, Weather

Agencies hope the next-generation satellite will serve as a bridge between the nation’s aging satellite fleet and the new ones yet to come.

Launch of the NPP satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday.

In a joint effort to improve observations of the Earth from space, NASA and NOAA launched a new satellite on Friday from Vandenberg Air Force base near Lompoc, CA. The satellite carries with it a suite of next-generation technologies and tools that the agencies say will enable scientists to continue monitoring climate change and weather patterns as many existing Earth-observing satellites are reaching the outer edge of their life expectancies.

The new satellite is part of the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), which aims to monitor the entire planet, collecting and processing data on the Earth’s weather, atmosphere, oceans, land, and near-space environment.  The agencies say this data will not only help with monitoring climate change, but also with natural disaster prediction and planning, and military strategies.  NASA describes the NPP as a bridge between the aging Earth Observation System (EOS) satellites and the “forthcoming” Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites, which are scheduled to begin launching in 2016. Continue reading

NASA and Google Team Up for Zero-Emissions Flight Contest

Google’s made all kinds of headlines with its investments in clean energy recently: $280 million for a California residential solar company, $55 million for a wind project in Kern County, more than $10 million for geothermal R&D projects, and $168 million for a massive solar farm in the California desert, just to name a few.

A new move by the company seeks to address another kind of energy challenge: airplane fuel. The company has teamed up with NASA to sponsor the Green Flight Challenge, a competition to develop emissions-free aircraft.

The challenge?  Build a plane that can fly at least 100 miles per hour and achieve the equivalent energy efficiency of 200 miles per gallon of fuel on a 200-mile flight. Continue reading

NASA Climate Funding Under Attack

The head of a major NASA research facility in California is downplaying efforts by a handful of House Republican members to strip the agency’s budget of its climate science funding.

An image from a joint NASA-NOAA satellite project. (Image: NASA-NOAA GOES Project)

S. Pete Worden, the director of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, expressed confidence that the agency’s 2012 budget would remain intact, despite a letter sent to committee heads from Congressmen from Florida and Utah, urging an end to climate science research at the agency. Continue reading

NASA’s Closer Look at the Bay Area

Taking global climate models and “downscaling” them for use at the local level is an ongoing challenge for scientists and for planners.  But thanks to new climate projections from NASA, the Bay Area now has a sharper view of what may be in store.

BCDC map showing 16 inches of sea level rise in the SF Bay, which the agency projects will occur by mid-century.

NASA says two-thirds of its facilities are at risk from sea-level rise, including Ames Research Center, which sits at the southern edge of San Francisco Bay.  So, it’s not exactly altruism that motivated the agency to deploy its own scientists to take a closer look at what climate change will really mean on the ground in places where it’s heavily invested. Continue reading

Climate News Roundup

A few items in the climate news that caught our eyes this week…

1. CEC approves 250-megawatt solar thermal project in Kern County
The California Energy Commission approved the Beacon Solar Energy project on Wednesday. It’s the first time in 20 years that state energy regulators have approved construction on a solar thermal farm, the Los Angeles Times reports.

2. Geoengineering won’t curb sea-level rise, study finds
A new report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that geoengineering strategies to combat global warming by blocking the sun’s radiation would not have much of an impact on rising sea levels, unless the efforts are extremely aggressive. (Read more at

3. Earth’s plant growth fell due to climate change, says NASA
After 20 years of increasing growth under warming temperatures, the Earth’s vegetation   saw a slight decrease over the last decade, according to a new NASA analysis.  Scientists reported they were surprised to find that the negative effects of regional droughts outweighed the positive influence of a longer growing season.

4. Another hurdle cleared for the world’s largest solar farm
Federal regulators are one step closer to approving plans for the 1,000 megawatt plant proposed by Oakland-based company Solar Millennium LLC.  The project would be located across more than 7,000 acres in Riverside County. (Read more at The New York Times.)

Heat Records Set in 17 Countries — So Far

This post also appears at Climate Central, a content partner of Climate Watch.

By Andrew Freedman

California’s freakishly cool summer has been bucking a global trend this season. You’ve seen the headlines from Moscow and Pakistan–but that’s just part of the story. 2010 has featured several extreme heat events, as well as record flooding, in many countries worldwide. The number of countries that have set new national records for the warmest temperature recorded — 17 — would beat the old record of 14, provided that all of the new records are verified by meteorological agencies. According to meteorologist Jeff Masters of the private weather forecasting firm Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the countries that have set new records thus far this year comprise about 19 percent of the earth’s surface area. Continue reading

NASA Launches Arctic Sea Ice Expedition

Coast Guard Cutter Healy (Photo by Petty Officer Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard)

Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo: Petty Officer Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard

Next week, a NASA team of more than 40 scientists will take to the seas for a five-week expedition in the Arctic to study how changing conditions there are affecting ocean chemistry and ecosystems.  The voyage, NASA’s first dedicated oceanographic research mission, is named ICESCAPE, which stands for “Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment.”  It will take place aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

“We’re  trying to address what is the long term impact of climate variability and change, both natural and anthropogenic, on the biogeochemistry and ecology of the Arctic,” said Paula Bontempi, program manager for NASA’s ocean biology and biogeochemistry research program.

The expedition will give scientists a chance to make field observations about the ocean, sea ice, and the atmosphere in regions where researchers often must rely on remote sensing technology for their data.  One main focus of the research will be to observe how changes, such as a substantial decrease in sea ice, may be affecting the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and the consequent effects on ecosystems.

“The Arctic is in the midst of some substantial changes,” said ICESCAPE Chief Scientist Kevin Arrigo of Stanford.  “In the last 10 years, the ice-free season in the Arctic Ocean has increased by about 45 days.  And this has a big impact on organisms in the Arctic that are keyed to these events.”

Arrigo says that the sea ice retreats about 28 days sooner than it did just a decade ago, and advances about 17 days later. He says this change has shifted the timing of food production.  Phytoplankton, the base of the food chain in the Arctic Ocean, are now growing a month earlier than they did in the 1990s, says Arrigo, which could spell a problem for organisms such as the California gray whales, which time their migrations around peak food production.

“Over the years satellite imagery has shown a significant decline in the Arctic ice cover,” said Don Perovich, a research geophysicist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, NH, who is part of the ICESCAPE expedition. “But there’s really more to it than just the ice.  It’s important to remember that sea ice isn’t just some isolated component. It’s part of larger system.”

Sea ice, he said, serves as a barrier between the atmosphere and the ocean, limiting the exchange of heat, moisture and gases; acts as a reflector of sunlight; and is a habitat for a rich marine ecosystem.

“It’s an ecosystem where sea ice and biology are intricately intertwined,” said Perovich. “You can think of the ice and the biology as executing this intricate dance, but it’s a dance where one of the partners has started changing its steps. And that partner is the sea ice cover.”

The 2010 ICESCAPE expedition starts in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, will continue across the southern Chukchi Sea and into the Beaufort Sea along Alaska’s northern shelf.  A second expedition is planned for 2011.   NASA estimates the cost of the ICESCAPE project to be $10 million over four years.

The expedition blog has already launched, and will be updated daily once the expedition is underway, according to NASA spokesman Steve Cole.

I’ll be launching my own “Arctic expedition” next week.  Starting June 18th, I’ll be spending two weeks with climate scientists at the Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska, as part of the Logan Science Journalism Program, run by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.   Check back here for periodic dispatches about the science, the landscape, and the impacts of constant daylight on one journalist’s mental state.

NASA Looking More Earthward

Rachel Cohen is a Bay Area freelance writer, presently serving an internship with Climate Watch.

NASA's GRACE satellite is equipped to gather ice and water data on the Earth's surface. Image: NASA

NASA's GRACE satellite is equipped to gather ice and water data on the Earth's surface. Image: NASA

To boldly go–where we already live

By Rachel Cohen

NASA will likely be focusing more attention on the “pale blue dot” in coming years, with a reinvigorated Earth Science Program. California’s freshwater supply and sea level change are among the features that will be studied by replacing an aging satellite.

The proposed White House budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration includes billions of dollars for satellites and other tech tools to help scientists investigate Earth-bound problems, especially climate change. Part of the program will be steered from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which will manage two key missions connected with the program. JPL spokesman Alan Buis says the White House support may provide stability for gathering the kind of long-term data sets needed to study gradual changes in earth systems.

As Jon Hamilton reports in his  story for NPR’s Morning Edition, the centerpiece of the program will be the GRACE satellite which will collect data critical for a variety of models and applications, including:

· The changing mass of polar ice caps
· Changes in water resources on land
· Shallow and deep ocean current transport mechanisms
· Sea level change resulting from ocean temperature and water mass changes
· Exchanges between the oceans and atmosphere
· Forces that generate Earth’s geomagnetic field, and
· Internal Earth forces that move tectonic plates and result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions

GRACE has been in orbit since 2002 and is due to be replaced. NASA suffered a severe setback when its Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite crashed after its launch early last year. The White House budget includes funding to rebuild the vehicle and relaunch in February of 2013. The OCO2 satellite is designed to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, specifically comparing sources of CO2 to “sinks,” where it is stored.