New spacecraft could help break the climate debate gridlock

Jan 11, 2011 By Irene Klotz
Glory is a low Earth orbit scientific research satellite designed to collect data on the properties of aerosols, including black carbon, in the Earth's atmosphere and climate system, and to collect data on solar irradiance for the long-term effects on the Earth climate record. Credit: NASA.gov

A new robotic probe is headed to the launch pad, aiming for a spot aboard what is called the A-train -- a fleet of Earth-orbiting spacecraft keeping tabs on the planet's changing climate.

The problem seems simple enough: Take the total amount of energy coming to Earth from the sun, subtract what gets reflected back or re-radiated from particles in the atmosphere and see what you have left. If more energy is coming in than going out, it's getting hotter.

The next bit is more complicated: Figure out what fraction of these stems from , such as wind-blown dust and volcanic eruptions, and what is coming from things we can control -- our industrial processes, business pursuits and recreational past-times.

NASA hopes to tackle the problem in one fell swoop with a spacecraft named Glory. Part-solar monitor, part-atmospheric probe, Glory is to join the quartet of Earth-orbiting satellites known as the Afternoon Constellation -- nicknamed the A-train -- which fly over the equator at roughly 1:30 p.m. local time every day so scientists can collect data from a variety of instruments tracking the same bit of real estate virtually simultaneously. That information is fed into computer models used to monitor and forecast climate change.

"As we're starting to set climate policy based on the inputs that are driving climate change, we need to be able to distinguish how much of is stuff that we can control and how much is purely natural," said solar physicist Greg Kopp, with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The Afternoon Train, or "A-Train", for short, is a constellation of satellites that travel one behind the other, along the same track, as they orbit Earth. Four satellites currently fly in the A-Train - Aqua, CloudSat, CALIPSO, and Aura. Glory, GCOM-W1, and OCO-2 are scheduled to join the configuration in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively. (Courtesy NASA.gov) Credit: NASA.gov

From a perch 438 miles above the planet, Glory will inventory -- both naturally occurring and human-induced -- so scientists can determine each type's relative influence on global climate. The instrument used to do this, called the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor works by looking at the angles of the bouncing off particles in the atmosphere. The patterns serve as fingerprints of a molecule's chemistry.

"The aerosols come in all shapes and sizes and chemical compositions," said Glory project scientist Michael Mishchenko, with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University in N.Y. "We can get a fairly good idea of the chemical composition and, thereby, of the origin of the particles -- is it a natural particle, or a manmade particle? The existing instruments can't do that."

Aerosols, which are basically everything that is suspended in the atmosphere besides clouds, can interact with sunlight directly by absorbing it or reflecting it back into space, both of which affect how much heat is in the atmosphere. Aerosols also have an indirect impact on climate by changing the properties of clouds, including how reflective they are and how much rain they produce.

Mishchenko suspects that the impact on the climate from aerosols is almost as significant in magnitude as the impact from greenhouse gases, but there is not yet enough information for an accurate assessment.

"The aerosols are a very important component of the climate system and the most unknown component of the climate system," Mishchenko said. "They represent one of a few climate components which are directly affected by human activities."

Opposite Glory's aerosol probe is a device to measure energy coming in from the sun, called the Total Irradiance Monitor or TIM. TIM will collect data about sunlight fluctuations across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from X-rays to far infrared light, information that scientists want to better understand the ebb and flow of energy to and from Earth.

"We need to be able to detect whether there's imbalance and we need to attribute this balance to specific causes," Mishchenko said.

Glory, which was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., is due to arrive at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Jan. 10 and be launched on Feb. 23. The launch comes two years after the botched flight of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory, another key climate-monitoring spacecraft that the agency plans to replace and fly in 2013.

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User comments : 20

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Paljor
2.9 / 5 (13) Jan 11, 2011
I can't believe that it is still deadlocked! Why will people not realise that we are warming up!
eachus
2.6 / 5 (14) Jan 11, 2011
I can't believe that it is still deadlocked! Why will people not realise that we are warming up!

Maybe because we're not?

A simple model of the effect of CO2 on the atmosphere says that the more CO2 in the air, the warmer things get. The problem with this simple model is that it does not match the data. The issue seems to be how CO2 affects clouds. In spite of what global warming activists preach, water vapor is the primary greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and clouds (which are liquid or frozen water aerosols) have an even bigger greenhouse contribution. A small change in the height or number of clouds could be caused by the interaction of CO2 and H2O in the atmosphere, and cancel out the direct CO2 contribution.

BTW, I want to see CO2 levels cut because of the effect on humans. Not because I think it makes things hotter. Also there is pretty unambiguous evidence that aerosols from pollution (or volcanoes) cause global cooling. But I don't think that is a solution.
mysticshakra
1 / 5 (11) Jan 11, 2011
If we are to believe the carbon dioxide content of Mars, as told to us by NASA, then this one of the strongest prices of evidence that the whole global warming idea is a lie. Mars atmosphere, we are told, is mostly CO2 and yet, the temperatures, we are told, are very very cold. Given the.claim that the Martian climate hasn't changed much in millions of years, it should be showing temperatures hotter than.earth. That it doesn't, is a nail in the coffin.
Parsec
4.3 / 5 (12) Jan 11, 2011
If we are to believe the carbon dioxide content of Mars, as told to us by NASA, then this one of the strongest prices of evidence that the whole global warming idea is a lie. Mars atmosphere, we are told, is mostly CO2 and yet, the temperatures, we are told, are very very cold. Given the.claim that the Martian climate hasn't changed much in millions of years, it should be showing temperatures hotter than.earth. That it doesn't, is a nail in the coffin.


Of course the fact that the Martian atmosphere is extremely thin and Mars is 1.5x further away from the sun couldn't possibly have an effect. Right?
PieRSquare
5 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2011
Sounds like a sensible and even-handled approach to the problem, although the devil is always in the details. Many will be too entrenched in their own opinions (on both sides) to be convinced by the results but I hope some will take the opportunity to look at the issue with fresh eyes without the usual cherry-picking and saber-rattling.
Quantum_Conundrum
1.6 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2011
Of course the fact that the Martian atmosphere is extremely thin and Mars is 1.5x further away from the sun couldn't possibly have an effect. Right?


Actually, by the time you figure for the inverse square law and Mars' distance from the Sun, Mars' mean surface temperature is actually comparatively 22.8% hotter than the hottest point on the lunar equator would be expected to be if it were the same distance from the Sun as is Mars.

Even if Mars was in isothermal equilibrium and had a perfect greenhouse effect, this wouldn't make sense, because only one side of the planet is recieving radiation at a time, or by the time you figure angle of incidence, the iquivalent of 1/4 of the surface area recieving direct exposure at the normal. Which is to say, Mar's entire surface is, on average, 22.8% hotter than the hottest point SHOULD be if it had no atmosphere and was tidally locked with the Sun.
Quantum_Conundrum
1.5 / 5 (6) Jan 11, 2011
The above presents a paradox, since Venus is in isothermal equilibrium and receives the same amount of energy from the Sun as it radiates into space, and has 1000 times more atmosphere than Mars, yet by comparison, Mars is 33% hotter than Venus would be expected to be if it were in Mars location.

Therefore, the CO2 in Mars atmosphere does not explain Mars' excess temperature, because the planet is 33% hotter than it should be even if it had 1000 times more atmosphere and a perfect greenhouse effect.
gmurphy
2.8 / 5 (6) Jan 11, 2011
@Quantum_Conundrum, wow!, all you need do now is write up this amazing insight and get it published, you'll be famous for sure . . . . . . < / sarcasm >
Quantum_Conundrum
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2011
@Quantum_Conundrum, wow!, all you need do now is write up this amazing insight and get it published, you'll be famous for sure . . . . . . < / sarcasm >


You know, if you bothered to do the math, you'd get the same results I did.
bfast
4.5 / 5 (6) Jan 11, 2011
Its nice to see that some scientists are taking the skeptics seriously and gathering real data.

Are we warming up?
Yes.
Is the warming caused by human activity?
This isn't as certain.
Will this analysis help?
Probably.
Will this quell all descent?
Not a chance in hell.
Must all descent be quelled?
By no means.
Modernmystic
2 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2011
How exactly are you going to determine a "natural aerosol" from a man made one?

Moreover I thought AGW was caused by CO2...

What am I missing here?
pauljpease
3.4 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2011
If we are to believe the carbon dioxide content of Mars, as told to us by NASA, then this one of the strongest prices of evidence that the whole global warming idea is a lie. Mars atmosphere, we are told, is mostly CO2 and yet, the temperatures, we are told, are very very cold. Given the.claim that the Martian climate hasn't changed much in millions of years, it should be showing temperatures hotter than.earth. That it doesn't, is a nail in the coffin.


Look at a map of the solar system. How far from the Sun is Mars again? Oh, right, it is way farther away, meaning it gets less sunlight to begin with. Then add the fact that just because the composition of the atmosphere is largely CO2, that doesn't mean there is very much of it. The Martian atmosphere is extremely thin, so even though it has a high percentage of CO2, overall it doesn't have much of an atmosphere. You might not know as much about science as you apparently think you do...
soulman
1.5 / 5 (8) Jan 11, 2011
You know, if you bothered to do the math, you'd get the same results I did.

You can't do math.
cijbm
not rated yet Jan 12, 2011
Hope their taking the energy stored by plants into account(not trivial) plus the energy given off by burning previously stored energy (probably trivial).
Moebius
3 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2011
"New spacecraft could help break the climate debate gridlock."

LOL, They already don't believe science or common sense. There is nothing that will convince skeptics.

If they don't have the common sense to understand that our activities are completely unnatural, unprecedented and massive, no amount of scientific evidence will convince them. Some of the posts here and in other climate change threads prove it. Common sense is so rare in our species as to be statistically non-existent. The skeptics will continue to deny climate change and responsibility when this paradise we inherited is a desert.
Halliday
1 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2011
How exactly are you going to determine a "natural aerosol" from a man made one?

...

That's the rub. There will be a lot of uncertainty in this "natural" vs. "anthropogenic" split. Sulfate and nitrate look the same whether "natural" or "anthropogenic" (unless they are able to remotely obtain isotopic ratios, which I very much doubt---assuming, of course, that "natural" vs. "anthropogenic" sources actually have different isotopic ratios [which is not a given]).

In fact, as recently as 1990, it was thought that the primary source of "natural" sulfate, in the atmosphere, was from peat bogs. However, even by 1998 it has been known that the major source of all sulfate in the atmosphere is the oceans (sea-spray alone, almost certainly, swamps all anthropogenic sources combined).

...
Halliday
1 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2011
continued ...

Even if one neglects sea-spray (which is at least as difficult to model correctly as natural soil dust), sulfate from the oxidation of the emissions of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) from marine organisms is now known to be by far the primary natural source (as I say, neglecting sea-spray, of course).

...
Halliday
1 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2011
continues ...

As for other particulates? We'll have to see what the instruments are actually able to pick up, and how the measurements become segregated into these "natural" vs. "anthropogenic" categories. Even worse, there are particulate, and other compounds within the atmosphere that can be combinations of both "natural" and "anthropogenic" sources: How will these be categorized? (Usually, such are lumped into the "anthropogenic" category, even without determining whether such would occur without anthropogenic emissions.)

So, while I look forward to the data (as well as the data from the OCO replacement), I'm skeptical that this will provide close to "all the answers".

But, here's hoping...

David
Halliday
1 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2011
cijbm said:
Hope their taking the energy stored by plants into account(not trivial) plus the energy given off by burning previously stored energy (probably trivial).

For the radiant energy balance part of this satellite's mission, there is no explicit handling of either of these processes: It is simply Radiant-Energy-in minus Radiant-Energy-out.

Now, if radiant energy were the only form of energy flowing in or out of the Earth, this energy balance would completely tell us the rate of energy accumulation/loss to/from the Earth. Unfortunately, there are other sources and losses, though they are usually [i]assumed[/i] to be "negligible" (or, at least, rather "small").

...
Halliday
1 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2011
continued ...

The trouble is that this energy balance is the difference between two large numbers, so the uncertainties can be huge, relative to the final "balance". Additionally, while the other sources and losses may well be very small compared to the radiant energy in and out of Earth, they can be quite comparable to the final difference (the "balance"). So, the obtained "balance" may not be statistically significant at all. (However, unfortunately, I expect a lot will be made of the mere [i]sign[/i] of the "balance" [positive or negative], regardless of its sign, or statistical insignificance).

But, here's hoping that we will get good data, and that the results will be properly handled ...

David