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NASA cuts would devastate climate research

Louise Osborne | Anne-Sophie Brändlin
November 29, 2016

Advisers to the new US president-elect have promised to slash funding to NASA's Earth division in favor of investing further in space exploration. Scientists say this could devastate climate research.

Orkan Matthew
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Donald Trump has only been President-elect of the United States for three weeks. But he has already managed to unnerve scientists, environmentalists and politicians across the world by dismissing climate change as a hoax, pledging to back out of the historic Paris Agreement, announcing a new pro-fossil fuels and deregulation agenda, and tapping a climate denier to run the nation's leading environmental agency.

The latest worry is Trump's plan to scrap NASA's climate research as part of a crackdown on "politicized science," as Trump's senior adviser told "The Guardian" last week. In the future, instead of focusing on climate change research, NASA's Earth science division is supposed to be exploring deep space. 

Scientists around the world depend on NASA research

Arktis Walross Eisscholle Greenpeace Schiff
Scientists say they need NASA research data to study glacier melting and sea ice formationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That's very bad news for climate research, say scientists. NASA's network of satellites has been providing important information on climate change, which has contributed to world-renowned research. 

"The NASA data is extremely important. Through their Earth Observing System, they provide a wide range of measurements of the Earth's surface and atmosphere," Thomas Hollands, a research scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute on polar and ocean research, told DW.

The data gathered by NASA is in fact essential in researching global warming and its impacts on Earth. Scientists around the world depend on NASA for a variety of information - from measuring the state of the Earth's atmosphere and the shape of its gravity field, to observations on glacier melting, sea ice formation, forest loss and urban growth.

NASA provides continuous measurements over an extended period of time

Sri Lanka lights at night as seen from a NASA satellite
To measure urban growth, NASA satellites have for example collected data on average brightness in Sri Lanka over the course of 20 years Image: Christopher Small

And it's not only about the variety of observations. NASA also provides continuous measurements over time, which are necessary for climate change research, said Hollands.

"If we want to detect climate-relevant trends in the data, we need continuous observations for long time spans."

And that's what NASA has been doing for decades. It's Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, which is aboard the Aqua satellite, has measured global temperatures, greenhouse gases and cloud cover for 37 years. This has given researchers the opportunity to see long-term how the planet is being affected by climate change.

"Those measurements play a key role in mapping the sea ice loss in the Arctic ocean," Hollands said.

"To destroy such time series makes it very difficult to study and understand what is happening to the Earth's climate," he added.

Stopping the research will affect people's day-to-day lives

Portugal Madeira forest fires
Research shows that climate change has been increasing wildfires across the worldImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Cunha

Stopping conducting Earth observation over a long time frame would not only lead to loss of "important insights of climate change," but also "directly impact day-to-day life," Hollands continued, referring to weather forecasts and climate model simulation carried out using Earth-focused satellites.

"Turning a blind eye to the state of the atmosphere would leave people vulnerable to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, wildfires or flooding," he said.

And he's not the only scientist worried - researchers around the world are raising the alarm. 

Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, told DW that there's a widespread concern that the US will isolate itself in the coming years under Trump - not just in international climate policy.

Edenhofer's biggest concern is Trump pushing for the export of coal.

"If there is no serious climate policy in the rest of the world, the US will have a real incentive to become a coal exporter. In that respect, the potential of the United States to cause trouble on the international scene is quite substantial," the renowned climate researcher said.