Climate Prioritized in Decadal Survey Recommendations

This story has been updated with information and quotes from today’s press conference and to correct the description of the survey process.

A once-a-decade federal survey of the U.S. scientific community released on Friday in Washington, D.C., recommends continued funding for Earth observing satellite missions that the Trump administration would cut, and says more spending is needed to monitor Earth’s changing climate from space.

The report, “Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space,” places a high priority on climate-change-monitoring space instruments.

“We can and must advance our ability to better observe, monitor, and predict natural hazards and extreme events to meet society’s needs in a changing climate,” the report states, warning of conditions including sea level rise.

A committee assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine asked the U.S. scientific community to identify the most important Earth science questions for NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey to address. The committee identified 35 priority questions, including how fast sea level is rising.

The report recommends continuing Earth science projects that were funded in the fiscal 2017 budgets but that the Trump administration would cut.

“There is perspective from space that cannot be gained any other way,” said Waleed Abdalati, director of Cooperative Institute of Research in Environmental Sciences at University of Colorado, Boulder and co-chair of the committee that conducted the survey and wrote the report. “We cannot stress enough the importance of flying out what is already on the books, what is already expected. All of our recommendations follow from that,” he said at a press conference.

The spending recommendations based in part on those survey results counter the Trump administration’s 2018 NASA budget proposal by recommending launching the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud and marine Ecosystems, or PACE, satellite. Its instruments would monitor plankton, which are a vital food source for ocean fish that can also proliferate into harmful algae blooms.

The report also recommends continued funding for another instrument that the Trump budget would cut: the already constructed Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 spectrometer, an instrument that would monitor carbon dioxide levels from space. Also cited in the report as a priority is NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2 weather and climate satellite, which is targeted for cuts in the 2018 NOAA budget proposal, and NASA’s Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder spectrometer that would be attached to the outside of the International Space Station.

These were among five satellites or instruments that would be cut under the, administration’s proposed budget for NASA’s Earth Science Division. The proposed 2018 budget is $1.75 billion compared to the 2017 budget of $1.93 billion.

Decadal survey recommendations are often cited by lawmakers as rationale for funding a program.

Lawmakers including Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., the Trump administration’s nominee for NASA administrator, have pointed to the report as a key factor in formulating future climate-research policy. Bridenstine told a Senate confirmation committee in November: “We have to follow the decadals.”

The U.S. was able to improve Earth observations over the last decade because Congress heeded the recommendations of the previous Earth science decadal survey, says Earth scientist Berrien Moore, who was the co-chair of the committee that released the previous iteration of the report in 2007.

“The Hill is enormously supportive,” Moore told me at the end of the press conference, optimistic that federal budgets will continue to support for scientific recommendations despite political differences on climate change.

Climate Prioritized in Decadal Survey Recommendations