Rapid advances in the second half of 20th century in
electronics, satellite observation, digital photography and internet networking
changed the way we see and understand our world. Film and video images made time
seem flexible. The sequence of frames can be reversed so that time appears to
move backward and forward, faster and slower. Using Google Earth you can
traverse the planet and zoom into any region of interest. Satellite imaging
using a range of light frequencies, scanners, and computer image processing
provide a steady stream of data that reveal what is really going on out there.
For me, one the great innovations of the 20th century is the availability of
earth observation in real time. One of the most encouraging achievements is an
expanded worldview and international cooperation in global understanding.
Monitoring the dynamics of planet earth has become an international project.
Some practical considerations motivated this effort. The task of achieving and
then maintaining international cooperation is not for ordinary mortals.
The global temperature data come from three independent records
maintained by NASA , the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) and the UK Met Office. All three data sets document unprecedented
Conrad Lautenbacher who led the US National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for seven years, stated before retirement:
“ I only wish I were three or four people. I wish I had the stamina to
work 48 hours a day instead of 16 hours a day, as more might have been done.”He championed the development of a Global Earth Observation System, an
international network that links Earth-monitoring systems in 75 countries. The
goal was to better understand and provide current information about climate,
water and natural disasters. Europe is pioneering the systematic application of science in space to societal
needs. In 2008, 18 member states of European Union budgeted 10 billion Euros for
the European Space Agency to deliver tangible benefits of space activity to
citizens and society, and to address key challenges such as climate change and
natural disasters, with Earth monitoring as its flagship. Earth observation satellites, scheduled for launch over the next decade,
will deliver a wealth of real-time data and maps of planet. A new allotment of 72 million USD was allocated to data analysis and publication of
essential climate variables.
In September 2009, 155 nations met at a World Climate
Conference in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss establishing a global climate
prediction service, a giant step beyond weather forecasting. As one would
expect, yet another attempt at international cooperation met with different
kinds of resistance: local interests always trump international cooperation. The scientific challenge is to develop more reliable methods of climate
forecasting that can be confirmed empirically. Schmidt of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies stated: "People are
experimenting in lots of different ways to improve seasonal to decadal
predictions but there's no guarantee that it will be possible." Pope, head of
climate change advice at Britain's Met Office confirmed: "We'll never be able to
produce absolute predictions of what will happen." In the US, NASA has launched a series of earth-observing satellites that report
often in real time conditions in the atmosphere, oceans and land.
Global data show that a powerful El Niño in 2016, marked by
warmer waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean, helped to drive atmospheric
temperatures well past 2014's record highs. Some researchers suggest that
broader Pacific trends could spell even more dramatic temperature increases in
years to come. Released on 20 January, the global temperature data come from
three independent records maintained by NASA, the US National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the UK Met Office. All three data sets
document unprecedented high temperatures in 2015, pushing the global average to
more than 1 ºC above pre-industrial levels. The year 2016 was hotter.
NASA’s Global Climate Change website announced in August 2016: ”Two key climate change indicators — global surface temperatures and Arctic
sea ice extent — have broken numerous records through the first half of 2016,
according to NASA analyses of ground-based observations and satellite data. Each
of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month
globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880, according to
scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. The
six-month period from January to June was also the planet's warmest half-year on
record, with an average temperature 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.4 degrees Fahrenheit)
warmer than the late nineteenth century.”
NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies reported that January
2017 was the third warmest January in 137 years.[i]
Extreme weather in 2017 was a stark reminder that global warming is
advancing quickly with widespread devastation and costs. Dell summarized our
predicament:” Neighborhoods burned in northern California during the fall of
2017 with more than 30 people reported dead and 2,000 buildings destroyed.
Downtown San Francisco is hazy with smoke from wildfires covering 465 square
kilometers, more than 30 kilometers north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Whatever the proximate cause, these should serve as reminders that climate
change is not a future problem, nor a hazard just for tiny island nations.
It is a problem now, and our land-management plans need to do a better job
of incorporating it. The US government’s move to pull out of the Paris
climate accord and the home-grown Clean Power Plans are dangerously
short-sighted. Municipalities’ efforts to cut their own emissions are
laudable. But it’s not enough. We have to manage the effects of climate
change that are already here. That means recognizing that threats are
[i] NASA Global Climate Change. March 8, 2017
[ii] Kathie Dello. Prepare for larger, longer
wildfires. Climate change makes land management more urgent than ever.
Nature 13 October 2017.