One of the first new satellites launched in the Trump era will provide invaluable insight into climate change, though it is being touted primarily for its ability to predict weather.
The Joint Polar Satellite System-1 will serve multiple functions, even as it has been described by the Trump administration as an important tool to help prepare for future storms. The satellite will also provide data essential to understanding how climate change is transforming the planet. That includes its monitoring of Arctic sea ice, one of the most dramatic indicators of a warming planet, as well as the ozone hole over Antarctica. The Trump administration has been quieter about those functions.
In a release announcing the launch, scheduled for Nov. 10 in California, there was no mention of climate change. Instead, the satellite was touted for its weather monitoring in the wake of this season's destructive hurricanes. It can also track floods, drought and other extreme events.
"The new JPSS satellite will join GOES-16 as we are confronting one of the most tragic hurricane seasons in the past decade," Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement. "The JPSS satellite system will provide advanced forecasting on not only hurricanes, but also dangerous weather events threatening communities across the United States."
Some researchers suggest Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were worsened as a result of climate change, which creates conditions, such as more atmospheric moisture, that can increase rainfall and cause sea surface temperatures to rise. The satellite can also track the location of forest fires, which have been exacerbated by climate change, and measure smoke plumes and carbon dioxide or methane emanating from wildfires.
The satellite is a collaborative project by NOAA and NASA.
The orbiter will also monitor atmospheric temperatures and moisture, and sea-surface temperatures and ocean color. It will be the second satellite orbiting the polar region. The first is the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, a joint NOAA and NASA satellite. The news release mentions that the satellite will improve understanding of natural climate patterns, such as El Niño and La Niña, that influence the weather.
"The forecasting you've seen is impossible without robust, high-quality global measurements of the atmosphere required to initialize our numerical weather predictions," said Louis W. Uccellini, director of NOAA's National Weather Service, in a press call announcing the satellite launch. "Polar satellites are the only way to obtain global temperature and moisture measurements, and they are the backbone of the global observing system that we use to make these predictions of extreme events."
Earlier press releases touted the valuable climate data the satellites would collect, including ocean surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice cover. The polar satellites will "study long-term climate trends by extending the more than 30-year satellite data record," NOAA officials said in a release during the Obama administration.
The satellite is an important part of creating a long-term and continuous data set that is essential to addressing climate change. That includes its role in monitoring sea ice changes, calculating changes in the top of the atmosphere and taking ozone measurements, said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
"The reason why there is so much cross-agency support and international support for these missions is because the total amount of diverse and irreplaceable data enables so much more science to be done, it's not just weather forecasts, it's not just climate, but it's all sorts of small-scale meteorology, large-scale deforestation, tracking pollution, tracking smoke fields, tracking ash where there is a volcano," he said. "The eye that we have on the Earth system as a whole from space is without comparison; if we didn't have this our knowledge of what is going on, we would be enormously impoverished."
Earlier releases also noted that the polar satellite program would fulfill the U.S. obligation under the Montreal Protocol to monitor global ozone concentrations. Over the last three decades, the U.S. and other nations dramatically lowered the chlorofluorocarbons in hair sprays and other products that depleted the ozone. President Trump has said that aerosols, including hair spray, don't contribute to the ozone hole. That's in opposition to long-held scientific conclusions.
"I said if I take hair spray and I spray it in my apartment, which is all sealed, you're telling me that affects the ozone layer?" Trump said at a rally with coal miners in May 2016. "I say no way, folks, no way."
Trump has also questioned basic climate science. Administration officials have been accused of stifling climate change research, and the White House proposed deep budget cuts to climate science programs. That includes the Earth-monitoring functions of some satellites that are already in space.
The newest polar satellite is part of larger network of orbiters first proposed in 2010. They will cross the Earth from pole to pole, traveling over the equator 14 times a day. After JPSS-1 is launched, it will be renamed NOAA 20. It's part of a program to launch four additional polar-observing satellites through 2031, providing data through 2038.