Earth’s climate is determined by a delicate balance between how much of the Sun’s radiative energy is absorbed in the atmosphere and at the surface and how much thermal infrared radiation Earth emits to space. A positive energy imbalance means the Earth system is gaining energy, causing the planet to heat up. The doubling of the energy imbalance is the topic of a recent study published June 15 in Geophysical Research Letters.
Scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration compared data from two independent sets of measurements. NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) satellite sensors measure how much energy enters and leaves Earth’s system. A global array of ocean floats, called Argo, provide data to enable an accurate estimate of the rate at which the world’s oceans are warming. Since approximately 90 percent of the excess energy from an energy imbalance ends up in the ocean, the overall trends of incoming and outgoing radiation should broadly agree with changes in ocean heat content.
“The two very independent ways of looking at changes in Earth’s energy imbalance are in really, really good agreement, and they’re both showing this very large trend, which gives us a lot of confidence that what we’re seeing is a real phenomenon and not just an instrumental artifact,” said Norman Loeb, lead author for the study and principal investigator for CERES at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense.”
“It’s likely a mix of anthropogenic forcing and internal variability,” said Loeb. “And over this period they’re both causing warming, which leads to a fairly large change in Earth’s energy imbalance. The magnitude of the increase is unprecedented.”
Increases in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, capturing outgoing radiation that would otherwise escape into space. The warming drives other changes, such as the melting of snow and ice, increased water vapor, and cloud changes that can further enhance the warming. Earth’s energy imbalance is the net effect of all these factors.
In order to determine the factors driving the imbalance, the investigators examined changes in clouds, water vapor, trace gases, the output of light from the Sun, Earth’s surface albedo (the amount of light reflected by the surface), atmospheric aerosols, and changes in surface and atmospheric temperature distributions.
The scientists found that the doubling of the energy imbalance is partially the result an increase in greenhouse gases from human activity, also known as anthropogenic forcing. It can also be attributed to increases in water vapor, which traps more outgoing longwave radiation and further contributes to Earth’s energy imbalance. The related decrease in clouds and sea ice also lead to more absorption of solar energy.
The authors also found that a flip of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) from a cool phase to a warm phase likely played a major role in the intensification of the energy imbalance. The PDO is a pattern of Pacific climate variability in which a massive wedge of water in the eastern Pacific goes through cool and warm phases. This naturally occurring internal variability in the ocean can have far-reaching effects on weather and climate. An intensely warm PDO phase that began around 2014 and continued until 2020 caused a widespread reduction in cloud coverage over the ocean and a corresponding increase in the absorption of solar radiation.
“The lengthening and highly complementary records from Argo and CERES have allowed us both to pin down Earth’s energy imbalance with increasing accuracy, and to study its variations and trends with increasing insight, as time goes on,” said Gregory Johnson, co-author on the study and physical oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “Observing the magnitude and variations of this energy imbalance are vital to understanding Earth’s changing climate.”
Loeb cautions that the study is only a snapshot relative to long-term climate change, and that it is not possible to predict with any certainty what the coming decades might look like for Earth’s energy budget. The study does conclude, however, that unless the rate of heat uptake subsides, greater changes in climate should be expected.
May 17th, 2021 by Josh Blumenfeld, NASA ESDS Managing Editor
harmony: 1. A pleasing arrangement of parts. 2. An interweaving of different accounts into a single narrative. (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)
The Operational Land Imager (OLI) aboard the Landsat 8 satellite and the Multi-Spectral Instrument (MSI) aboard the Sentinel-2A and Sentinel-2B satellites tell two slightly different stories of Earth. OLI fully images the planet’s land surfaces every sixteen days at 30-meter resolution. MSI images Earth with repeat coverage every five days at 10- to 20-meter resolution.
But what if you could combine, or harmonize, these two data stories into a single narrative? With the provisional release of the Harmonized Landsat Sentinel-2 (HLS) dataset, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the European Space Agency have done just that. By combining OLI and MSI data—processing it to be used together as if it all came from a single instrument on one satellite—scientists have created global land surface products at 30-meter spatial resolution that are refreshed every two to three days.
“Our definition of ‘harmonized’ is that observations should be interchangeable for common [spectral] bands,” says Jeff Masek, the HLS principal investigator and Landsat 9 project scientist. “By harmonizing the datasets and making the corrections so that it appears to the user that the data are coming from a single platform, it makes it easier for a user to put these two datasets together and get that high temporal frequency they need for land monitoring.”
Two provisional surface reflectance HLS products are available through NASA’s Earthdata Search and NASA’s Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC): the Landsat 30-meter (L30) product (doi:10.5067/HLS/HLSL30.015) and the Sentinel 30-meter (S30) product (doi:10.5067/HLS/HLSS30.015). HLS imagery also is available through NASA’s Global Imagery Browse Services (GIBS) for interactive exploration using the NASA Worldview data visualization application.
The HLS image-processing algorithm was initially developed by a team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center starting in 2013, with test versions released in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Even though HLS was still in the prototype stage and covered just 28 percent of Earth’s land surface, the team saw immediate and clear value for the scientific community. The project was scaled up from 28 percent to nearly 100 percent of Earth’s land surface (minus Antarctica) in 2019 by NASA’s Interagency Implementation and Advanced Concepts Team (IMPACT) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
The HLS dataset is optimized for use in the Amazon Web Services commercial cloud environment; hosting it in the cloud has significant benefits for data users. “We’re really trying to take data analysis to the next level where we’re able to provide this large-scale processing without large-scale computing requirements,” says Brian Freitag, the HLS project manager at IMPACT. “For example, if you want to look at all the HLS data for a particular plot of land at the 30-meter resolution provided by HLS, you can do this using your laptop. Everything is in cloud-optimized GeoTIFF format.”
The harmonious combination of the OLI and MSI stories is opening new avenues of terrestrial research. A principal HLS application area will be agriculture, including studies of vegetation health; crop development, management, and identification; and drought impacts. HLS data also are being used in a new vegetation seasonal cycle dataset available through LP DAAC.
Global, 30-meter coverage every two to three days? The ability to access and work with years of Landsat and Sentinel imagery in the commercial cloud? That’s a harmonious arrangement the scientific community is eager to explore.
Five decades ago, NASA and the U.S. Geological Society launched a satellite to monitor Earth’s landmasses. The Apollo era had given us our first look at Earth from space and inspired scientists to regularly collect images of our planet. The first Landsat — originally known as the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) — rocketed into space in 1972. Today we are preparing to launch the ninth satellite in the series.
Each Landsat has improved our view of Earth, while providing a continuous record of how our home has evolved. We decided to examine the legacy of the Landsat program in a four-part series of videos narrated by actor Marc Evan Jackson (who played a Landsat scientist in the movie Kong: Skull Island). The series moves from the birth of the program to preparations for launching Landsat 9 and even into the future of these satellites.
Episode 1: Getting Off the Ground
The soon-to-be-launched Landsat 9 is the intellectual and technical successor to eight generations of Landsat missions. Episode 1 answers the “why?” questions. Why did space exploration between 1962 and 1972 lead to such a mission? Why did the leadership of several U.S. government agencies commit to it? Why did scientists come to see satellites as important to advancing earth science? In this episode, we are introduced to William Pecora and Stewart Udall, two men who propelled the project forward, as well as Virginia Norwood, who breathed life into new technology.
Episode 2: Designing for the Future
The early Landsat satellites carried a sensor that could “see” visible light, plus a little bit of near-infrared light. Newer Landsats, including the coming Landsat 9 mission, have two sensors: the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS). Together they observe in visible, near-infrared, shortwave-infrared, and thermal infrared wavelengths. By comparing observations of different wavelengths, scientists can identify algal blooms, storm damage, fire burn scars, the health of plants, and more.
Episode 2 takes us inside the spacecraft, showing how Landsat instruments collect carefully calibrated data. We are introduced to Matt Bromley, who studies water usage in the western United States, as well as Phil Dabney and Melody Djam, who have worked on designing and building Landsat 9. Together, they are making sure that Landsat continues to deliver data to help manage Earth’s precious resources.
Episode 3: More Than Just a Pretty Picture
The Landsat legacy includes five decades of observations, one of the longest continuous Earth data records in existence. The length of that record is crucial for studying change over time, from the growth of cities to the extension of irrigation in the desert, from insect damage to forests to plant regrowth after a volcanic eruption. Since 2008, that data has been free to the public. Anyone can download and use Landsat imagery for everything from scientific papers to crop maps to beautiful art.
Episode 3 explores the efforts of USGS to downlink and archive five decades of Landsat data. We introduce Mike O’Brien, who is on the receiving end of daily satellite downloads, as well as Kristi Kline, who works to make Landsat data available to users. Jeff Masek, the Landsat 9 project scientist at NASA, describes how free access to data has revolutionized what we are learning about our home planet.
Episode 4: Plays Well With Others
For the past 50 years, Landsat satellites have shown us Earth in unprecedented ways, but they haven’t operated in isolation. Landsat works in conjunction with other satellites from NASA, NOAA, and the European Space Agency, as well as private companies. It takes a combination of datasets to get a full picture of what’s happening on the surface of Earth.
In Episode 4, we are introduced to Danielle Rappaport, who combines audio recordings with Landsat data to measure biodiversity in rainforests. Jeff Masek also describes using Landsat and other data to understand depleted groundwater.
June 29th, 2020 by Emily Cassidy, NASA Earth Science Data Systems
NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have joined forces to create the COVID-19 Earth Observation Dashboard. The web platform combines the collective scientific power of the agencies’ Earth-observing satellites to document changes in the environment and society in response to the pandemic.
The dashboard is a user-friendly tool to track changes in air and water quality, climate change, economic activity, and agriculture.
Air quality changes were among the first noticeable impacts of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders, and the resulting reductions in industrial activity, that could be tracked through satellite observations. Reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels — primarily related to temporary reductions in the burning of fossil fuels — show up clearly in satellite data.
A preliminary analysis also indicates that planting (farming) activity dropped during the quarantines and lockdowns. For example, the cultivated area of white asparagus in Brandenburg, Germany, has been 20 to 30 percent lower this year, compared to 2019. More information on agricultural productivity changes will be added to the dashboard in the months to come.
Recent water quality changes have been reported in a few locations that typically have intense industry and tourism — activities that have decreased during the pandemic. Data on ship identification, construction activity, and nighttime lights (above) are featured on the dashboard to keep track of some of the economic ramifications of the virus.
Together, ESA, JAXA, and NASA will continue to add new observations to the dashboard in the coming months to see how these indicators change. Learn more in the NASA press release, the video below, or by exploring the dashboard.
To counter the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the winter and spring of 2020, quarantines and social distancing measures were implemented around the world. Air traffic nearly ceased; non-essential businesses were closed; and the number of vehicles on the road fell well below normal.
Remote sensing scientists have started looking at potential changes in the environment due to these changes in human behavior. They are looking for signs of how environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, and ultraviolet radiation might play a role in the behavior of the virus. Some may also look for data related to access to water resources, which can be critical to the spread or prevention of certain diseases.
NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems program has developed a new web-based tool, the COVID-19 Data Pathfinder, which provides links to datasets that can be used to research changing environmental impacts from modified human behavior patterns, the possibility of seasonal trends in virus transmission, and water availability. The COVID-19 Data Pathfinder is also a resource for participants in NASA’s Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, providing an intuitive means for new users to find and use NASA data.
Ever since a new and deadly strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) emerged in China and then spread around the world, the virus has upended life in many countries. Scientists at NASA and other institutions have hustled to track and make sense of our new reality with every tool and technique at their disposal, including satellite data.
As several comprehensive NASA-funded research projects get started, here is a quick roundup of some of the more interesting satellite-related findings about the science of coronavirus and its effects on the environment.
A Welcome Breath of Cleaner Air
Much of the news about the new coronavirus is grim, but observations of air quality offer a breath of fresh air. Several satellite sensors have detected drops in air pollutants — including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particles — following restrictions on travel and economic activity. Teams of scientists have spotted changes in China, Europe, the U.S. Northeast and Southeast, and India.
Look here for some tips on how to find and visualize changes in nitrogen dioxide, one of the gases that most clearly shows the effects of quarantines and economic shutdowns. Also, look here for nitrogen dioxide data for cities all around the world. But beware: As University of Georgia meteorologist Marshall Shepherd has pointed out, clouds and rain can create confusing changes in nitrogen dioxide that have nothing to do coronavirus restrictions.
A New Coronavirus Tracking Tool
Given how much the virus has changed daily life, many of us find ourselves turning into armchair epidemiologists, trying to make sense of how the virus is spreading and what it means for our local area. If you are interested in taking a close look at new data as it comes in, this simple-to-use mapping tool from NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) might be of interest. It features demographic data, along with regularly updated information on reported global cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). There is a short user guide here.
A Stream of New Seasonality Studies
One of the key unknowns about the new coronavirus is whether environmental conditions — such as temperature, humidity, and exposure to ultraviolet light — have any effect on how the virus spreads or on the severity of the symptoms. NASA-funded researchers are starting to investigate this in several ways, while others are using NASA data in their models and analyses.
Billions of people are facing something that NASA astronauts have plenty of experience with—living in social isolation for long periods with just a few other people. Here are some tips from astronaut Anne McClain and psychologist Tom Williams.
More than 20 years ago, NASA scientist Ralph Kahn authored a column for the Los Angeles Times anticipating the launch of a new satellite — and ultimately a whole fleet of satellites — that would study Earth.
“We want a picture of Earth that is more specific about what is happening to the climate, which after all is what makes the planet habitable,” he wrote. And that picture needed to be rich with detail. “Precisely where are deserts encroaching on grasslands? In what regions is it raining more than usual? Exactly how much are glaciers shrinking, and at what rate is the sea level rising?” he asked.
“About every seven weeks, the satellite archives will receive as much data from EOS-AM as are held in all the volumes of the Library of Congress. And the EOS-AM satellite alone is supposed to keep pouring numbers down from the sky, relentlessly, for at least six years,” Kahn wrote.
Amazingly, all those numbers from Terra continue to pour down 20 years later. Over time, the flood of data from Terra and several other satellites has turned into scientific discoveries. Bit by bit, the questions Kahn initially posed in his column have been answered.
November 20th, 2019 by Lia Poteet, NASA Earth Science Division Applied Sciences Program
Camp managers and other officials overseeing Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are now incorporating NASA satellite observations into their decision-making. Information like daily rain totals can help inform how to lay out refugee camps and how to store supplies. The goal is to reduce the risk to refugees from landslides and other natural hazards.
Since August 2017, more than 740,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar (Burma) to Bangladesh. Many of them have sought shelter in camps in the hilly countryside, where landslide risks are greatest. When refugee camps were built in the southeastern part of the country, many plants and trees were removed — taking with them the roots that could hold the soil in place and help stabilize the landscape when heavy rains come.
Increasing this danger is Bangladesh’s intense monsoon season. Approximately 80 percent of the country’s yearly rain falls from June to October, bringing with it an increased risk of flash flooding and landslides. For instance, July 2019 storms dropped 14 inches of rain in just 72 hours, causing 26 landslides in Rohingya refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. One person was killed and more than 4,500 others were left without shelter.
“We have little information on landslides,” said Hafizol Islam, who is in charge of one of the most densely populated camps at Cox’s Bazar. “It is unpredictable for us and can happen at any time.”
Now Islam and other camp managers have access to maps and a website (updated daily) that provides near real-time NASA data on land use, rainfall, and elevation. Data come from the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, among other sources. Taken together, these maps and data provide a clearer picture of when and where landslide hazards are concentrated.
“With landslides, flash floods, and rapid development, the terrain of these camps is constantly changing,” said Robert Emberson, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Emberson and other researchers from NASA’s Earth Applied Sciences Disasters Program and Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) are using new approaches to work alongside humanitarian end-users and develop products to address pressing needs in vulnerable settings. The partnership seeks the feedback of the local people affected and develops maps based on their input.
“We need to understand if, why, and when existing risk information is being used,” said Andrew Kruczkiewicz of IRI, one of the principal investigators of the project. “This strengthens the development of data services for humanitarian emergencies, where decisions and priorities change rapidly. Working in teams that bridge traditional professional and disciplinary boundaries gives data and climate scientists the opportunity to learn more about decision-making in specialized contexts.”
“The partnership with NASA and IRI helps the UN agencies to assess risks like landslides or flash flooding and supports the disaster management in a scientific way to save lives and reduce damages in the refugee camps,” said Cathrine Haarsaker, a project manager for UNDP Disaster Risk Management.
Emberson said seeing the camps in person brought home the importance of connecting with the people on the ground. “Working with satellite data can sometimes feel quite abstract and separate from the people within the images,” he said. “Visiting the camps not only helped us understand more about the specific problems associated with landsliding to help improve our models in the future, but also drove home the human side to this disaster, emphasizing the urgency of our work.”
October 4th, 2019 by Joe Atkinson, NASA Langley Research Center
Who knew that being a scientist could be as easy as pointing your phone at the sky? This month, NASA and the GLOBE Program are asking citizen scientists to take out their phones and report what kinds of clouds they see above them.
“What excites researchers about GLOBE observations is the ability to see what’s up in the sky from volunteers’ perspectives all over the world,” said Marilé Colón Robles, lead for the GLOBE Clouds Team at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “What our eyes can see is difficult to fully duplicate with instruments. Merging these views is what makes a complete and impactful story.”
“We want to do a data challenge in the fall and see if there are any differences from what was observed during the spring data challenge of 2018,” said Colón Robles. “From thin, high clouds that are hard for satellites to detect to dust storms that impact our daily lives, these observations play an important role in better understanding our atmosphere.”
At NASA, scientists work with a suite of satellite instruments known as the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES). Though they have these highly sensitive instruments, it can sometimes be difficult for scientists to distinguish features such as cirrus clouds from snow cover in their imagery because both are cold and bright from a satellite perspective. By comparing satellite images from a particular area with data submitted by citizen scientists, researchers can differentiate between the two.
Lucky GLOBE observers might make an observation while the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) is overhead. CALIPSO is a joint mission between NASA and the French space agency (CNES) that uses laser pulses to measure clouds and atmospheric aerosols. Citizen scientists who make observations at the same time and place as CALIPSO will receive an emailed satellite comparison of CALIPSO’s measurements showing features such as high clouds, dust, and smoke. Scientists are especially interested in these observations in order to improve their understanding of dust storms. During the challenge, make sure you turn on daily satellite notifications in the app or use this satellite overpass website to see the schedule for your location.
“Last year’s challenge gave researchers special glimpses into cloud types around the world,” said Colón Robles. “Photographs provided by observers gave insight into events such as dust storms and wildfires. Our hope is to once again learn from the community and together study our atmosphere.”
The 2018 data challenge, which took place in the spring, received more than 56,000 cloud observations from more than 15,000 locations in 99 countries and Antarctica.
NASA is a sponsor of GLOBE, an international science and education program that provides students and the public with the opportunity to participate in data collection and the scientific process. NASA GLOBE Observer is a free smartphone app that lets anyone make citizen science observations from the palm of their hand.
June 18th, 2019 by Laura Rocchio, Landsat Communication and Public Engagement Team
The UK’s Antarctic Place-names Committee has agreed that seven ice features in western Antarctica should be named for Earth-observation satellites. One of them is Landsat Ice Steam.
The new designations were announced on June 7, 2019. The ice features are all located in Western Palmer Land on the southern Antarctic Peninsula.
The seven features ring George VI Sound like pearls on a necklace. The new names, as officially entered into the British Antarctic Territory Gazetteer, are (from west to east): Landsat Ice Steam, ALOS Ice Rumples, Sentinel Ice Stream, GRACE Ice Stream, Envisat Ice Stream, Cryosat Ice Stream, and ERS Ice Stream.
The UK has submitted the new names for the fast-moving ice features to Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which maintains a gazetteer or registry, of names officially adopted by individual nations. Under the Antarctic Treaty, signatory nations confer on geographic feature names, but each nation’s naming authority formally adopts new names. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will meet in July and may discuss at that meeting whether the names adopted by the UK also will be adopted by the US. The question of using the term “glacier” for the ice features instead of “ice stream” is also part of each nation’s naming decision.
The new names were proposed by Anna Hogg, a glaciologist with the Center for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University of Leeds. In research published in 2017, Hogg found that glaciers draining from the Antarctic Peninsula were accelerating, thinning, and retreating, with implications for global sea level rise. The fast-moving glaciers that Hogg and colleagues tracked with radar and optical satellite imagery were unnamed. In her paper, the glaciers had to be designated by latitude and longitude.
Satellites had enabled Hogg and her team to clock the speed of these nameless ice features—some with rates faster than 1.5 meters/day. In tribute to the spaceborne instruments, Hogg came up with a way to describe the fast-moving ice features more succinctly—name them after the satellites that had helped her understand their behavior.
Hogg proposed to the U.K.’s Antarctic Place-names Committee that the features should be named for Landsat, Sentinel, ALOS PALSAR, ERS, GRACE, CryoSat, and Envisat. She was notified in early June that the committee had agreed to adopt the names, which provide a way to recognize international collaboration, as fifteen space agencies currently collaborate on Antarctic data collection.
“Satellites are the heroes in my science of glaciology,” Hogg told the BBC. “They’ve totally revolutionized our understanding, and I thought it would be brilliant to commemorate them in this way.”
Naming the glaciers after satellites is also a celebration of data fusion. “Our understanding of ice velocities and ice sheet mass balance has come from putting many different remote sensing data sets together—optical, radar, gravity, and laser altimetry,” said Jeff Masek, the NASA Landsat 9 Project Scientist. “Landsat has been a key piece in assembling that larger puzzle. Naming an ice stream after Landsat is a fitting way to recognize the value of long-term Earth Observation data for measuring changes in Earth’ polar regions.”
Read more from NASA’s Landsat science and outreach team, including the history of Antarctic observation with Landsat. Read more about all of the glaciers and their namesake satellites, as told by the European Space Agency. And read about the island discovered by and named for Landsat, and the woman who discovered it.
Correction, June 27, 2019: SCAR’s role in the Antarctic naming process was incorrectly described in the earlier version of this article. Updates were provided by Dr. Scott Borg, Deputy Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences, and Peter West, the Outreach Program managers for NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, to correctly describe the naming process.