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The Planet NASA Needs to Explore
Shifting Priorities Imperil Satellites Crucial to Tracking Climate Change

By Tony Haymet, Mark Abbott and Jim Luyten
Thursday, May 10, 2007

Decades ago, a shift in NASA priorities sidelined progress in human space exploration. As momentum gathers to reinvigorate human space missions to the moon and Mars, we risk hurting ourselves, and Earth, in the long run. Our planet -- not the moon or Mars -- is under significant threat from the consequences of rapid climate change. Yet the changing NASA priorities will threaten exploration here at home.

NASA not only launches shuttles and builds space stations, it also builds and operates our nation's satellites that observe and monitor the Earth. These satellites collect crucial global data on winds, ice and oceans. They help us forecast hurricanes, track the loss of Arctic sea ice and the rise of sea levels, and understand and prepare for climate changes.

NASA's budget for science missions has declined 30 percent in the past six years, and that trend is expected to continue. As more dollars are reallocated to prepare for missions back to the moon and Mars, sophisticated new satellites to observe the Earth will be delayed, harming Earth sciences.

The National Academy of Sciences has noted that the Landsat satellite system, which takes important measurements of global vegetation, is in its fourth decade of operation and could fail without a clear plan for continuation. The same is true for the QuikSCAT satellite, which provides critical wind data used in forecasting hurricanes and El NiƱo effects.

In January, a partnership of university and NASA scientists demonstrated that climate change and higher ocean temperatures were reducing the growth of microscopic plants and animals at the heart of the marine food web.

Their analysis was based on nearly a decade of NASA satellite measurements of ocean color, which unfortunately are at risk of being interrupted for several years.

Sea levels are rising, and the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free in summer. The buildup of carbon dioxide in the oceans threatens to make them more acidic, which may in turn hinder the ability of some types of marine life, including corals, to build their shells and skeletons. We must learn as much as we can to assess these threats and develop solutions.

Satellites provide coverage of vast, remote regions of our planet that would otherwise remain unseen, especially the oceans, which play an important role in climate change. Without accurate data on such fundamentals as sea surface height, temperatures and biomass, as well as glacier heights and snowpack thickness, we will not be able to understand the likelihood of dangers such as more severe hurricanes along the Gulf Coast or more frequent forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.

Climate change is the most critical problem the Earth has ever faced.

Government agencies and the private sector, as well as individual citizens, need to better grasp the risks and potential paths of global climate change. Mitigating these risks and preparing for the effects of warming will require scientific understanding of how our complex planet operates, how it is changing, and how that change will affect the environment and human society.

John F. Kennedy's brilliant call to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s set an arbitrary deadline, but the deadline we face today is set by nature. NASA must continue to play a vital role in helping find ways to protect our planet for (and perhaps from) its intelligent life. Exploration of space is a noble quest. But we can't afford to be so starry-eyed that we overlook our own planet.

Tony Haymet is director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego. Mark Abbott is dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. Jim Luyten is acting director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass.

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