NASA has collected data on how seas are rising across the planet for more than 25 years. A new mission is launching in 2020, which will extend that data for a decade. But the data also poses some major concerns.
“The sea level rise we see today is unlikely to ever be reversed in our lifetimes,” said Josh Willis, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “Right now, we have about one inch per decade of sea level rise, but it’s widely predicted that this rate of rise will increase.”
The satellite that will launch next year has a radar altimeter to measure the distance between it and the ocean’s surface within a few centimeters of accuracy. It will do this everywhere across the world every 10 days.
Willis says tracking sea level rise is important because “two-thirds of the Earth's surface are literally growing because of climate change. We are literally reshaping the Earth.”
The satellite, called Sentinel-6/Jason-CS, short for Jason-Continuity of Service, is the fifth iteration of a satellite that tracks sea level rise and is the longest-running mission working on the issue. The first satellite was launched in 1992. The goal this time is to answer this question: How much will Earth's oceans rise by 2030?
“By averaging all that data together, we hope to be able to see the rising of the oceans to within an accuracy of a millimeter or so within a year,” Willis said.
Data from the other missions have helped agencies learn about El Niño and La Niña, weather systems that have a huge impact on California.
“Today, we have 27 years of data and having that long time series allows us to detect time signals, but we couldn’t do that without the early data,” said Steve Nerem, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado.
“It’s really one of the most valuable climate data records that we have today,” Nerem said. “We would just be blind without the satellites.”
The data from the satellites also help better predict hurricane intensity and how ocean currents change.
“The satellites just completely change our understanding of sea level rise, what the variability is, and it gives us this complete picture because the measurements are global,” Nerem said.
In about five or six years, an identical satellite will replace Sentinel-6/Jason-CS. This one is currently undergoing testing at iABG, an engineering company based in Munich, Germany. It was developed by the European Space Agency, the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellite, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with some funding from the European Commission and from France's National Centre for Space Studies. The launch is expected for November 2020.
“We all share the same oceans … and when a place like Greenland starts losing its ice, sea level all around the world increases and coastlines all around the world are already battling the rising tide of the oceans caused by global warming,” Willis said.
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