Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

NASA's "Age of Aquarius" - and the future of climate satellites

So, NASA sent a new satellite up at Vandenburg Air Force Base today here in Southern California. The Aquarius observatory - their materials promise - will, within a few months, "collect as many sea surface salinity measurements as the entire 125-year historical record from ships and buoys." They expect to cover the earth's surface once every seven days. It's so accurate it can measure a pinch of salt in a gallon of water. Aquarius has research related goals, too: 

The water cycle - 86% of global evaporation and 78% of global precipitation occur over the ocean; thus SSS is the key variable for understanding how fresh water input and output affects ocean dynamics

Ocean circulation - With temperature, salinity determines seawater density and buoyancy, driving the extent of ocean stratification, mixing, and water mass formation

Climate - As computer models evolve, Aquarius will provide the essential SSS data needed to link the two major components of the climate system: the water cycle and ocean circulation

So, it's up. And NASA couldn't sound happier: 

"Data from this mission will advance our understanding of the ocean and prediction of the global water cycle," said Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at agency headquarters in Washington. "This mission demonstrates the power of international collaboration and accurate spaceborne measurements for science and societal benefit. This would not be possible without the sustained cooperation of NASA, CONAE and our other partners."

In addition to Aquarius, the observatory carries seven instruments that will monitor natural hazards and collect a broad range of environmental data. Other mission partners include Brazil, Canada, France and Italy.

"This mission is the most outstanding project in the history of scientific and technological cooperation between Argentina and the United States," said CONAE Executive and Technical Director Conrado Varotto. "Information from the mission will have significant benefits for humankind."

It's an interesting time to remember that not everybody likes a satellite as much as they do. A few months ago in Congress, the sprawling budget debate leaked briefly into environmental news, when House Republicans demanded cuts to NOAA.

House Republicans, who have been looking for ways to shave $61.5 billion from the 2011 federal budget, stress that they don't want to specifically cut either of the warning centers -- a network of ocean buoys and deep-water sensors that alert scientists to changes in ground movement and tide levels and could indicate a tsunami is on the way. They just think the parent agency has some fat to trim. The Republicans are also going after federal funding for climate change research and other environmental projects in their proposed cuts.

"Look, I think that all of us need to be tempered by the fact that we've got to stop spending money we don't have," said House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., during a press briefing. "I mean, essentially what you're saying is, go borrow money from the Japanese so we can go and spend it there to help the Japanese."

Now, okay. NOAA and NASA aren't the same. Budget debates are't good referendums on how people feel about satellites, exactly. Weather buoys got caught in the crossfire. But it's worth remembering that the bipartisan discussion is haunted by another spectre, too: climate. An article in Popular Science earlier this year documented how satellite contractors are selling climate sensing satellites based on their weather sensing capabilities.  Even NOAA's Jane Lubchenco doesn't like saying the c-word: 

“Not having satellites and not applying their latest capabilities could spell disaster,” said NOAA's Lubchenko. “We are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today.”

Anyway, this all reminded me of a few months ago, when Mike Conathan, who directs ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, wrote this: 

Environmental satellites are not optional equipment. This is not a debate about whether we should splurge on the sunroof or the premium sound system or the seat warmers for our new car. Today’s environmental satellites are at the end of their projected life cycles. They will fail. When they do, we must have replacements ready or risk billions of dollars in annual losses to major sectors of our economy and weakening our national security.

Infrastructure, man. The boringest subject you never stopped needing to pay attention to. But maybe it's bold of NASA to admit it's interested in measuring something related to climate? Or maybe it was just too late to stop 'em.