NASA’s reputation as an unrivaled behemoth in space exploration, earth observation, and deep space is on an ascendant in its 60th year. Even though 2017 was replete with official announcements and resultant foreboding that NASA will henceforth focus mainly on deep space and moon, but its stupendous work has proven that it still has the edge in the earth.
As 2017 is about to end, let’s have a look at some of the NASA Earth Observation researches and programs that had a seismic impact and whose implications for the planet earth and life, habitation, climate and ecosphere here are yet to fully unravel.
Highest concentration of CO2 in more than two millennia
A NASA study provided incontrovertible evidence that Earth’s tropical regions were the main cause of the largest annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration seen in at least 2,000 years. The research used global data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, which was launched in 2014.
Scientists initially believed that the 2015-16 El Nino was responsible, but exactly how has been a subject of studies and research. After analyzing the first 28 months of data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite, researchers reached to the conclusion that the effect of El Nino-related heat and drought occurring in tropical regions of South America, Africa, and Indonesia were responsible for the record spike in global carbon dioxide.
In eastern and southeastern tropical South America, including the Amazon rainforest, severe drought precipitated by El Nino made 2015 the driest year in the past three decades.
In striking contrast, rainfall in tropical Africa was at normal levels but still, the ecosystems had to bear the sweltering heat. Meanwhile, tropical Asia had the second-driest year in the past 30 years.
Disaster mitigation and response using NASA Earth Observation
High-resolution satellite imagery from NASA played a great role in disaster preparedness, response, and mitigation all across the globe, in the case of hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires.
Teams of earth-observation disaster specialists at seven NASA centers respond to events in real-time and work with partner agencies to provide them the necessary information they need. The program mobilizes for intensive risk events that include a wide range of natural hazards, including earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, floods, landslides, severe weather, winter storms, tropical cyclones, and volcanoes.
In the destructive earthquake that rocked Mexico in the month of September and claimed hundreds of lives, NASA prepared a damage assessment map to fasten relief and rehabilitation efforts on the ground. The map was made available for free download.
The map was before-and-after interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) satellite imagery of areas of Central Mexico, including the capital and most populous Mexico City to identify areas of damage and produce what is known as a Damage Proxy Map. The precise imagery was captured from the radar instrument on the Copernicus Sentinel-1A and Sentinel 1-B satellites operated by the European Space Agency. NASA provided the map to the Mexican government also.
NASA undertook similar efforts in Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and most recently in the California wildfires.
Massive Iceberg calving in Antarctica
An iceberg about the size of the US state of Delaware split off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf sometime around mid-July. The splitting of this massive iceberg was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Aqua satellite, and confirmed by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument on the joint NASA/NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi-NPP) satellite.
Larsen C, a floating platform of glacial ice on the east side of Antarctica, is the fourth largest ice shelf surrounding the Earth’s southernmost and the only uninhabited continent. In 2014, a crack that had been slowly growing into the ice shelf for decades suddenly started to spread northwards, creating the nascent iceberg. With the breaking of 2240 square mile (5800 square kilometers) chunk of ice, the Larsen C shelf area has shrunk by 10 percent.
NASA scientists said that while global warming and climate change is impacting the ice sheets of Antarctica and triggering glacial melting but the calving of Larsen C cannot be directly attributed to the spike in temperature or heat.
Ozone layer monitoring
The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE) III instrument monitors the ozone layer, which covers an area in the stratosphere 10 to 30 miles above Earth and saves the earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation.
Its predecessors, SAGE I and SAGE II helped scientists in understanding the causes and effects of the Antarctic ozone hole. SAGE III, designed to operate for at least three years, will help scientists to continue monitoring its recovery.
NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder program is supporting the instruments that are currently in development. The program is managed by NASA‘s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3) instrument will monitor carbon dioxide distribution around the globe. Assembled with spare parts from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite, OCO-3 will provide insights into the greenhouse gas’s role as it relates to growing urban areas and changes in fossil fuel combustion.
Impact of Sun on climate
NASA launched a new instrument TSIS-1 to observe and analyze the sun, and particularly its impact on the climate on earth. The instrument will measure the total amount of light that falls on the Earth, which is called total solar irradiance, and how that light is distributed among ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelengths, called solar spectral irradiance.
TSIS-1 takes measurements with two sensors: the Total Irradiance Monitor and the Spectral Irradiance Monitor. These sensors advance previous measurements and are designed to see the tiny changes in solar irradiance, enabling scientists to study the Sun’s natural influence on Earth’s ozone layer, atmospheric circulation, clouds, and ecosystems.
First global mapping of volcanic emissions
Volcanic eruptions lead to the emission of a lot of harmful compounds that cause pollution and play a role in global warming and climate change. Of the many compounds, Sulphur Dioxide is the main pollutant and it’s relatively easy to detect it from outer space.
In March this year, scientists from Michigan Technological University created the world’s first global inventory of volcanic Sulfur Dioxide emissions. For this purpose, they used the data from the Dutch-Finnish Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA’s Earth Observing System Aura satellite launched in 2004. They compiled emissions data from 2005 to 2015 to produce annual estimates for each of 91 presently emitting volcanoes worldwide. The dataset would provide invaluable insight into the various risks posed to both the human health and the environment.