BREAKING UP IS HARD TO FIX: A March 5, 2002, image taken by an Earth mission satellite's moderate-resolution imaging spectroradiometer (MODIS). Analysis by the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed that the northern section of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, a large floating ice mass on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, had shattered and separated from the continent. Image: NASA
NASA could be one of the nation's most potent weapons in battling climate change. The space agency has conducted decades of research into weather, life-support systems and the atmospheres of other planets providing it with unique skills to address this problem.
It would be easy for policymakers to overlook NASA as they map out a strategy for solving Earth's biggest environmental woes. But here are some important reasons why they shouldn't.
NASA has 21 Earth-observing spacecraft in orbit today, five more missions in development, and has been studying Earth's climate for the past three decades. This includes, for example, ICEsat, which monitors polar ice cap shrinkage. Scientists from across the globe use the data from these missions to refine their understanding of Earth's changing atmosphere. Some of their number crunching is done on NASA supercomputers (including the largest civilian one in the world). In turn, these models provide us with a basic understanding of the status of our climate and the means to make predictions of future changes.
NASA has a proved ability to accomplish major engineering feats. Climate change is an immense challenge that involves an extremely complex system—the environment—along with advanced technologies that could be used to measure it and mitigate problems. Each of these facets is a significant scientific and technical hurdle, but perhaps the biggest challenge is to bring everything together into a comprehensive, integrated plan. This will require a coordinated effort of thousands of scientists and engineers, and large-scale deployment, perhaps not unlike the retooling of manufacturing during World War II or the Apollo project. There are few organizations with the relevant capacity, and NASA is one.
From the joint U.S.–Soviet Apollo–Soyuz mission during the height of the Cold War to the current International Space Station (ISS), NASA has successfully completed large engineering projects with other nations,and climate change management will undoubtedly require a global effort.
NASA also has decades of experience with green technologies such as solar cells, fuels cells, turbine technology, biofuels, carbon sequestration, and closed-loop life-support systems. This last capability helps NASA to manage the near-100 percent recycling of consumables on board the ISS—an important step to understanding how to do that on a natural spaceship, the one we call Earth.
Finally, NASA enabled the Planet Earth perspective. On Christmas Eve 40 years ago, the first human beings to enter the gravitational sphere of another planetary body, the moon, took a picture of Earth rising above the lunar surface—Earthrise. Pictures like these kicked off the environmental movement; allowing humanity to realize the extreme isolation and fragility of our planet.
But NASA can do more if the new Pres. Barack Obama and Congress give it the chance. The following are nine ways that it can help solve the world's energy and climate change problems:
1. Develop an integrated, global plan for energy and the environment. In collaboration with international partners and other agencies, and taking into account climate change data, the best models of their progression, and characteristics of renewable energy technologies (and the expected rate of their improvement), this plan would, among other things, detail: the rates of renewable technology deployment required; whatever additional climate data is necessary; the proper levels of carbon trading and caps; the data needed to measure the impact of those caps; and what mitigation technologies should be deployed. The plan would make clear whether nations could meet the internationally agreed-on carbon dioxide emission limits and still fulfill their energy needs. And if the current trajectory does not suffice, then what adaptations, in what technological areas, and in what locations would be needed to ensure they are met.