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Measuring global temperature and the tech behind it


AUSTIN (KXAN) — 2022 was one of the warmest years on record. How do we know? NASA and NOAA are partners in data collection, study and modelling.

KXAN spoke with Rachel Tilling, a polar scientist at NASA, about the latest findings and how technology that measures our changing planet continues to evolve.

2022 Temperature Anomaly (Compared to 1951-1980 average). Courtesy: NASA
2022 Temperature Anomaly (Compared to 1951-1980 average). Courtesy: NASA

Nick Bannin | KXAN News: Rachel, NASA and NOAA just released the global temperature report for 2022. Tell us what it says.

Rachel Tilling | NASA Polar Scientist: NASA Data are telling us that 2022 was the fifth hottest year on record and it was actually joint with 2015 as the fifth hottest year. So 2016, still just holding that record as the hottest year, but the last nine years now have been the nine hottest years on record and the long term temperature trend globally is still very much upwards.

Bannin: Now 2022, obviously, just one year, but when you look at the grand scheme of things over the last decade, what sort of changes are you seeing and how is that impacting people and places?

Tilling: We are seeing these long term increases in temperature, NASA have been creating this temperature record now since the 1880s and temperatures have been rising since then, as carbon emissions increase and the human influence on the planet increases. But at the same time, the planet is now having an influence on us as humans. So 2022 was really a year of extremes. There’s been extreme flooding in Pakistan and now in California. Wildfires in Colorado and California burned well into the winter, which we didn’t see even a few decades ago, there were many extreme hurricanes that made landfall in the US and up to Canada and Greenland and all of these events really have a devastating impact on the people that experience them.

Global temperature departure from average compared to 1951-1980 average. Courtesy: NASA
Global temperature departure from average compared to 1951-1980 average. Courtesy: NASA

Bannin: Now, can you tell us about some of the new technology that NASA and NOAA are using to help measure the changes that we’re seeing year after year in our climate?

Tilling: I would love to it’s my favorite subject, because I use satellite data to study the Arctic to study how sea ice is being influenced by climate change. But NASA has this incredible fleet of satellites along with some of its partners like NOAA, and the European Space Agency to measure so many different things about Earth’s climate, for example, we can look at rates of deforestation, we can look at rates of sea level rise from melting glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, we can look at changes in global temperature and so many more things. And it’s awesome to be able to work on this data to get a better idea of the health of our planet and also what we will expect to see moving forward and how best to mitigate the human impact on the natural environment.

Bannin: When were these satellites launched, and how do they compare to the sort of the old way that we were able to measure the changes in the Earth?

Tilling: These satellites have been being launched for many years now by NASA, one of the first ones that actually looked at the polar regions was launched in 1979. And more recently, in 2018, we had a satellite called ICESAT 2, which is my favorite satellite that looks at the polar regions. And, again, they provide this incredible view of Earth because they’re allowing us to look at places that we often wouldn’t actually be able to access. For example, if you think of Antarctica, not only is expensive to get there, but it’s also very, very remote, or the center of the Amazon rainforest. we now have satellites, and you tell us what’s going on there and it’s a global view, it’s extensive. So not only is there more data, it’s also in places that we haven’t really been able to see before.

Bannin: And I imagine the resolution just gets better and better the more satellites we launch too?

Tilling: Absolutely, I can see ponds forming on sea ice from space that are just a few meters across, which is something even when I started my career I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do now

Bannin: What’s coming in the future. Is it just more and better satellites? Or is there other technology that we can look forward to to measure the changes?

Tilling: More and better satellites would be wonderful for me, but we’ve also got other technologies that we’re using more and more on field work, for example, we’re seeing more drones, we’re getting lighter instrumentation, so you can start attaching things like radar and lasers to these tiny little instruments and send them off. And really the main thing is that we can start bringing all these different types of technology together because we have the computing
pow now to produce a global view of what is going on with so many different climate variables.

Bannin: I imagine when you have a better idea what’s happening now that can get input into models to sort of get a better idea what’s going to happen in the future?

Tilling: For sure, and one of the things again, I keep coming back to sea ice because it is my favorite thing. We use the data that we’re collecting at NASA to put into predictive models that can help us predict when we might see an ice free Arctic for the first time. And there’s a lot of people doing similar stuff like that with the data that they’re collecting.


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