Our Planet is Incredibly Complex and Ever Changing: Dr. Stephen Volz

Year 2020 was among the three warmest years in records dating back to the mid-1800s, even with a cooling La Niña influence in the second half of the year, setting new high-temperature records globally. The 31st annual State of the Climate Report for 2020, which was led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and published by the American Meteorological Society in August 2021, also found that the major indicators of climate change continued to reflect trends consistent with a warming planet. Several markers such as sea level, ocean heat content, and permafrost once again broke records set just one year prior. Notably, CO2 levels in the atmosphere reached record highs in 2020, even with an estimated 6-7 percent reduction of CO2 emissions due to the economic slowdown from the global pandemic.

The effects of climate change are there for all to see now. Both 2020 and 2021 were among the most devastating in terms of extreme weather events. In the United States alone, there were 20 weather and climate disasters in 2021, while 2020 recorded billion-dollar events, the highest number of disasters recorded in the country in a calendar year. Overall, these 20 disasters in the year 2021 resulted in the deaths of 688 people — the most number of disaster-related fatalities since 2011 and more than double the 262 recorded in 2020. Total damages from these 20 disasters were approximately USD 145 billion.

The number and cost of disasters have been increasing over time due to a combination of increased exposure (that is, values ​​at risk of possible loss), vulnerability (that is, where we build and how we build), and climate change, which is increasing the frequency of some types of extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. More specifically, these trends are further complicated by the fact that much of the growth has taken place in vulnerable areas like coasts and river floodplains.

NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service is responsible for one of the most comprehensive data holdings on Earth. We archive and provide access to data and information from the surface of the sun to the bottom of the ocean. Some of our data records extend back millions of years, while we also serve real-time satellite observations to users. Understanding past environmental conditions is paramount to putting current events and future projections into a proper historical and climatic context. Our Earth Observation (EO) data provides critical inputs for climate projections, which allows us to better prepare for a changing world. We provide the foundational data that allows policy- and decision-makers at all levels to make informed decisions based on past, current, and future environmental conditions.

A favorable policy environment

The policy environment in the US has provided enhanced opportunities for federal agencies to work collaboratively on issues of critical importance to the country, from the fires in the West to our changing climate.

We are pursuing multiple policy advancements in data sharing, in environmental justice, in Space operations standards and orbital debris management, in collective climate observations, and climate change mitigation monitoring. This is a lot to process all at once, but it is reflective of the clear national and global awareness of the critical value Space provides to address these challenges.

Each of these initiatives has an immediate audience or set of participants, both inside and outside the federal government, who are working on this agenda. But there is also a lot of overlap amongst the communities involved and their experts. Our collective challenge is to make coordinated and collective progress on the initiatives and to take advantage of the synergies when we see them. For example, an initiative in Open Data sharing is essential to successfully address the need for global climate observations, and you can’t successfully address the long-term orbital debris problems without talking about Space operational standards and norms.

Global Earth Observation System of Systems

Our planet is incredibly complex and ever changing. Improving our forecasting of weather, water and Space weather events, enhancing understanding of our changing climate, and monitoring environmental hazards requires high-quality, timely, and global observations from EO satellites.

We cannot accomplish our mission using NOAA satellites alone. To meet the level of coverage needed, we work with the international community, sharing the EO data required for weather and environmental predictions on a full, free, and open basis.

We receive three times more meteorological data from our international partners than we provide the international community. We receive data from our partners in Europe, particularly the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), the European Commission’s Copernicus Program of Sentinel satellites, as well as our partners in Japan, India and Canada to name a few. Moreover, we use our participation in a variety of multilateral venues (CGMS, CEOS, WMO, GEO) to support identification of observing system requirements, coordinate commitments of Space-based assets to meet global requirements, and to promote full and open data sharing.

We also benefit when one country or agency makes an advancement and the others follow its example. For example, our Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite — R Series (GOES-R) improvements in the Geostationary Lightning Mapper instrument, now being followed by Europe and China, and in the Advanced Baseline Imager, were deployed by the Japan Meteorological Agency and Korea Meteorological Administration for their global coverage. Also EUMETSAT and China Meteorological Agency’s deployment of Hyperspectral Infrared Imaging from geostationary Earth orbit is a technology the US intends to develop as well.

data and analytics

Data may be like the new oil, but much better and cleaner of course. Even better, it can be used over and over again by different people for different applications. An atmospheric sounding observation is critical for the Numerical Weather Model to produce today’s forecast, but then it becomes part of a Climate Data Record (CDR), where it can be combined with the 50-year history of for climate
analysis, and with other observations of the land sea and air taken by other instruments and satellites at the same time to produce new understanding of different phenomena.

Data without analytics cannot lead to understanding and application. But models with sparse data are limited as well. We live in a world of incredible satellite data richness, and are pressed to integrate the data to produce better understanding and forecast/predictions. Like a lot of things in the information space, it depends on the problem. If you ask a scientist, or someone studying the planet, they would almost always say more data, or higher resolution data, or new data, is better.

But can we make the data we already have more vital than it already is?

Absolutely. We have been doing so for a long time with real-time and retrospective data. In the past, we would refine data by making maps, atlases, analyses, and summaries. These were ‘analytics’, using yesterday’s tools. In today’s world, technology has enabled a much greater demand for, and many more tools to perform, this kind of work. Meeting that expanded demand is a wonderful challenge for us. At the same time, we clearly see the value of more and better observations to improve our models and forecasts.

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