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Heating up: remote sensing and global warming

Two polar bears on an iceberg. ©Eric Lefranc/Solent

After droughts, floods, and a “superstorm” this year, people everywhere are talking about the weather. Some people taking the long-term view are urging us all to not only talk but to think much more deeply -- and even to do something -- about climate change.

"Something extraordinary is going on in the world,” noted New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof as Hurricane Sandy began to dissipate. In a column headlined, “Will climate get some respect now?” Kristof recalled the amazement of Eskimos in Alaska toward the changes they were seeing: "from melting permafrost to robins (for which their Inupiat language has no word), and even a (shivering) porcupine."

Across the Atlantic, Fiona Harvey wrote last week in The Guardian under the headline “Climate change 'likely to be more severe than some models predict'” that the latest climate models predict higher temperature rises along with more extreme weather. In other words, expect more droughts such as the UK and the USA saw last summer, more disruptions of the Indian monsoon, and more intense hurricanes like Katrina in 2005 and last month’s Sandy.

Doing something, with photonics

Photonics is playing an enormous role in climate modeling and in our understanding of what is entailed in managing climate-related changes.

On the other side of the world from where Hurricane Sandy was wreaking havoc, a group of scientists and engineers whose work is to develop and build tools that read weather systems, predict and track storm activity, and model climate change were reporting at SPIE Asia-Pacific Remote Sensing on their latest work.

As symposium chair Toshio Iguchi of Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology noted in welcoming conference attendees, they were meeting in the very same facility where the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1997.

Reports last month in Kyoto covered projects such as:
  • ground-based observation of dust aerosols and their impact on climate over northwest China
  • monitoring surface climate using satellite measurements in the USA
  • connections between vegetation activity and local climate in East Asia mutual verification in Japan between satellite data and climate model simulation results
  • modeling CO2 fluctuations on the surface of the Earth via observations from the GOSAT Project (Global Greenhouse Gas Observation by Satellite).

More reports were heard in September in Edinburgh at the SPIE Remote Sensing conference. Plenary speaker Mitchell Roffer (Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service) talked about applications of satellite visualization and data fusion products for assessing the health of ocean fisheries such as tuna, mackerel, squid, and marlin, as well as mapping oil-dispersant-and-water mixtures in oil spills, notably in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

Conference papers in Edinburgh discussed:
  • impacts of climate change on Romanian mountain forests
  • instruments used in projects in China, Canada, Russia, and USA to monitor the forces of climate and their impacts on numerous human and environmental factors
  • the amount and rate of evaporation of moisture from the land surface
  • ocean salinity and the consequent change in which creatures and plants can live in those habitats.

Read all about it

The SPIE Newsroom regularly publishes updates from researchers. A sample of recent papers on remote sensing and climate change includes:

Monitoring global precipitation using satellites: Floods caused by extreme precipitation are one of the most frequent and widespread natural hazards, and more costly and dangerous than ever as population in urban areas increases and the global climate becomes more extreme and variable.
University of California, Irvine, Center for Hydrometeorology and Remote
Sensing (CHRS) Global Network for Water and Development Information for
Arid Lands server for monitoring near-real-time global precipitation distribution.

Improved remote sensing of surface soil moisture: Surface soil moisture plays an important role in the exchange of water and energy between land and the atmosphere, so is important to quantify for use in weather and climate models, flood forecasts, and irrigation management during droughts.

Investigating sensitivity in a Central European landscape: Studies of precipitation and biomass production in the Carpathian Basin that indicate warmer summers in the next century.

Rising lake levels indicate accelerated glacier melting: Satellite-measured elevation data was used to quantify the water levels of the largest lakes in the Tibetan Plateau.

What else needs to be done?
The New York Times noted in a post-Sandy analysis that infrastructure and city planning need attention. "The cost of that single hurricane may well be more than five times greater than that of a usual full year’s worth of the most expensive regulations, which ordinarily cost well under $10 billion annually. True, scientists cannot attribute any particular hurricane to greenhouse gas emissions, but climate change is increasing the risk of costly harm from hurricanes and other natural disasters. Economists of diverse viewpoints concur that if the international community entered into a sensible agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the economic benefits would greatly outweigh the costs."

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