May 30, 2024 - News

UCSD professors want to use NASA satellites to better predict climate change threats

A rendering of satellites measuring trees and glaciers on Earth's surface.

The EDGE satellite would measure ecosystems like forests and glaciers and ice sheets as they change in response to human activity. Rendering: Courtesy of EDGE

Two research teams from UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography are working to build new satellites to measure the effects of climate change from space.

Why it matters: The projects are part of a NASA initiative to better understand how the Earth works and how it's changing, and to better predict climate-worsened extreme weather threats.

Driving the news: The UCSD-led teams were selected as finalists for the NASA science missions earlier this month.

Zoom in: Physical oceanographer and professor Sarah Gille's proposal, called Ocean Dynamics and Surface Exchange with the Atmosphere (ODYSEA), looks at how the ocean and atmosphere interact.

  • It uses a Doppler scatterometer to measure winds and surface currents simultaneously from space, which Gille said has never been done before.
  • Those ocean-atmosphere interactions determine weather, particularly hurricanes and storms that upend people's lives, she said.
  • The satellite could provide global, real-time data for weather forecasting, maritime operations and search and rescue missions at sea.

The second proposal, called Earth Dynamics Geodetic Explorer (EDGE), will use satellite lasers to sharply measure and locate shrinking ice sheets and glaciers, as well as the distribution and density of vegetation across the Earth's surface.

  • It's like sharpening the focus on binoculars to get a clearer picture of what threats are coming down the line, Scripps glaciologist and professor Helen Amanda Fricker said.

Between the lines: The EDGE satellite will use swath mapping to track how much ice we're losing to the ocean, which is causing sea level rise.

  • It will also tell researchers how much carbon is in forests (which fuels wildfires), monitor where carbon is being lost from fires and deforestation, what habitats are at risk and areas susceptible to drought.
  • The spacecraft could target key regions to provide monitoring as a forest fire or iceberg carving event is happening.

What's next: The researchers were awarded $5 million to further refine their concepts over the next year, and two of the four finalists will be chosen.

  • At stake is the chance to launch these novel instruments into space as soon as 2030, with a budget of $310 million each.

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