Gutting NASA's Earth Science Division Would Send Research Back to the Dark Ages

By Maddie Stone on at

Norm Nelson is interested in what makes the oceans tick. As a biological oceanographer at UC Santa Barbara, his research draws connections between sunlight and phytoplankton, the tiny green microbes that power the marine carbon cycle. There are plenty of outstanding questions Nelson wants to pursue—but after 30 productive years, his days as a scientist may be numbered.

That’s because Nelson gets upwards of 80 per cent of his funding from NASA’s Earth science division, which members of the Trump transition team would like to see gutted. Former Congressman Robert Walker made this fact crystal clear in an interview with The Guardian last week, when he said that NASA should stop doing Earth-centric research, and instead focus on exploration of deep space. The not-so-subtle subtext? Walker wants to eliminate research on human-caused climate change, a topic which he says has become “heavily politicised.”

On the chopping block along with climate change—a subject which, by its very nature, is embedded into nearly every branch of Earth science—would be research on a wide range of topics from oceanography to volcanology. Also at risk are millions of data products used by scientists, forecasters, and urban planners.

“Ending NASA’s Earth science research division would basically put an end to my research,” Nelson told me in an email. “I have no expectation that other agencies would be able to fill in the gaps. Some of my colleagues are in a similar position.”

 


Image: NASA Earth Observatory

 

There are no guarantees that Walker, who may or may not be part of the Trump administration, will get his wish. So far, Trump’s positions on science and technology have proven volatile. Factors ranging from basic economics to national security could influence the new administration’s decisions concerning NASA’s $2 billion Earth science budget.

Still, the prospect of Walker’s proposed cuts has sent a shockwave through the Earth science community, and it’s not hard to see why. Scrapping, or substantially curtailing NASA’s Earth science division would cause many jobs to be lost and plunge fruitful fields of research back into the dark ages. Not just in the United States, but globally. “It would have an extremely damaging impact,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University.

Robert Bindschadler, a retired glaciologist who used to run Antarctic field expeditions out of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Centre, began his career in the proverbial dark ages of Earth science. Which is to say, before NASA had a constellation of satellites collecting round-the-clock data on our planet’s temperature, cloud cover, sea level and ice volume.

 


NASA Earth science division operating missions. Image: NASA

 

“I got in[to glaciology] when you had to go into the field, write down measurements in the field, come back, and that was the data you had,” Bindschadler told me over the phone. “Satellites completely revolutionised glaciology. I could not have been luckier to be at NASA at a time when these missions were starting to provide data we never had before.”

Indeed, almost overnight following the launch of the first Landsat satellites in the 1970s, long-held assumptions about Earth’s cryosphere were overturned. Ice sheets, it turns out, are far more dynamic than scientists once realised.

“We used to think the ice sheets took centuries to change,” Bindschadler said. “Instead, we learned that they speed up and slow down with the tidal cycle, and that larger changes can happen on the scale of decades.”

 


Gif by Gizmodo via NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

 

Those decade-scale changes include the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice, which is being documented by the combined efforts of NASA’s Landsat, Terra, Aqua and GRACE satellites, and ground-based and airborne surveys. Because of global warming, scientists expect the Arctic to be sea ice-free in the summertime by mid-century. That’s a dramatic shift, and it’s likely to have ripple effects on Earth’s weather and climate system. Any gaps in the satellite record would seriously hinder scientists’ ability to understand the changes we’re facing.

“Data continuity is incredibly important,” Bindschadler said. “These are expensive missions, but there’s no replacement for getting measurements of what’s happening today.”

Kevin Tremberth, a senior scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research who studies Earth’s global energy budget, agrees that continuous satellite monitoring is mission-critical. To determine the balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing radiation from the Earth’s surface—information which allows us to track global warming—Tremberth’s team uses the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System products compiled by NASA’s Langley Research Centre. CERES products come from nearly 20 different instruments on 11 different satellites, so you can imagine how pulling any one satellite offline, even temporarily, would have cascading effects.

 


Record-breaking Hurricane Matthew’s rampage through the Caribbean in October was monitored by NASA satellites. Image: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory

 

“If there’s a break in the record of any kind, you don’t know how to join it up before and after,” Tremberth told me. “Gaps can be devastating.”

Waleed Abdalati, a glaciologist who directs the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at UC Boulder, is doubtful the Trump administration would go so far as to scrap active, hundred million-dollar Earth-monitoring satellites. “It’d make very little economic sense,” he told me over the phone. “Operating these satellites [once they’re airborne] is a very small fraction of the cost.”

Instead, Abdalati and other scientists I spoke with seemed more concerned that research making use of satellite products will be scaled back, and that future satellites could be delayed or even mothballed. “I think the more likely thing would be a slowing down or terminating of things in the queue,” Abdalati said. “As satellites start to go dark, we’re essentially turning a blind eye to what’s happening on the Earth.”

Turning a blind eye to the Earth wouldn’t just stifle basic research. It would leave us more vulnerable to all sorts of weather and climate-related disasters, from drought-fuelled famines in Ethiopia to devastating wildfires in Alberta to the ceaseless march of sea level rise in South Florida and the South Pacific. These, and many other environmental challenges that NASA’s Earth science division helps us to understand, have enormous economic and national security implications for all of humanity.

 


Fires in the southeastern United States in November were captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Image: NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner

 

It is unclear whether Walker does not grasp NASA’s sweeping role in the Earth sciences, or if his denial of human-caused global warming has simply left him apathetic about the whole thing. His recent comments, on how NASA’s “politically correct environmental monitoring” could just be ported over to NOAA, suggest a little bit of both.

“Asking NOAA to take over NASA’s Earth Science mission is a bit like asking your auto mechanic to do your dental work,” Mann said. “The two agencies missions are complementary and indispensable.”

While NOAA has a mandate to monitor Earth’s oceans and its atmosphere, NASA, since the mid 1980s, has had a broader goal of studying the Earth system as a whole. Its mix of scientific and engineering talent and infrastructure leaves the space agency uniquely qualified to design, test, and build new equipment for doing so. Indeed NOAA, with its much smaller budget, is utterly dependent on partnerships with NASA to conduct its Earth-monitoring activities.

 


The GOES-R satellite, the United States’ most advanced weather satellite yet, launched into orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket recently. GOES-R isa collaboration between NASA and NOAA. Image: NASA

 

“There’s a physical and intellectual infrastructure at NASA geared toward observations of and from space,” Abdalati said. “If you were to try to carve it out and reconstitute at place like NOAA, it’d take years, even decades.”

Nelson put it more bluntly. “I don’t believe that they have any intention of doing this. This whole talk of ‘moving NASA’s Earth monitoring functions to NOAA’ is just a cover for their real intention, which is to eliminate effective climate science.”

Of course, other nations have Earth-monitoring programs too. It’s possible, were NASA’s Earth science program to contract, that the European Union or China will become bigger players in the future. Jobs would follow the money, and the United States would start bleeding scientific talent.

 


A rift in Antarctica’s Larsen C ice sheet was captured recently during NASA’s IceBridge Mission. Image: NASA/John Sonntag

 

Of all the threats to NASA’s Earth science program, a loss of bright young minds may be the hardest to recover from. And if Trump’s policies match his transition team’s rhetoric, that may be exactly what we’re headed for.

“The real value of these agencies is the people within them,”Bindschadler said. “NASA has brilliant people, and you want new brilliant people to come in. You want them to feel energised coming into work every day. That’s a morale thing. That’s fragile.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Dr. Bindschadler’s last name as Bindleschader. We regret the error.