NASA Chief Scientist and Senior Climate Advisor Kate Calvin discusses the agency’s role in climate research.
NASA conducts a program of breakthrough research on climate science, enhancing the scientific community’s ability to advance global integrated Earth system science using space-based observations. NASA research encompasses solar activity, sea level rise, the temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans, the state of the ozone layer, air pollution, and changes in sea ice and land ice.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Current and future climate-related NASA missions
- What NASA is doing to make climate data more accessible and usable
- How NASA’s climate research impacts people’s everyday lives
Katherine Calvin is NASA’s Chief Scientist and Senior Climate Advisor. As chief scientist, Calvin advises agency leadership on the agency’s science programs and science-related strategic planning and investments. As senior climate advisor, she provides insights and recommendations for the agency’s climate-related science, technology, and infrastructure programs. Calvin serves in this capacity under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program. Since 2008, she has been an Earth scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute (JGCRI) in College Park, Maryland. Calvin worked with JGCRI’s Global Change Analysis Model, a system for exploring and analyzing the relationships between human and Earth systems in the context of global climate change. She has a bachelor’s in computer science and mathematics from the University of Maryland and a doctorate in management, science and engineering from Stanford University.
Kate Calvin: We have a variety of missions and instruments in orbit right now that can show us everything from land surface changes to night lights and beyond. And we work with local decision makers and first responders and governments to provide that information in near real time.
We have a lot of exciting missions coming up. Just in 2022, we have missions that’ll help us better understand mineral dust, tropical cyclones, surface waters.
We have information that can help you understand the world that you live in, and we also have information that can provide an insight into the future.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas. I’m Deana Nunley.
NASA’s role in climate research is to perform rigorous science and make observations of Earth’s interconnected systems that can be used by the public, researchers, and policymakers to support strategic decisions. Kate Calvin was appointed in January as NASA’s Chief Scientist and Senior Climate Advisor, and she joins us now. Kate, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Calvin: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
Host: What’s unique about NASA’s role in climate research?
Calvin: We have this unique vantage point of space where we can see Earth. We have more than two dozen satellites and instruments in orbit, so we can see all of Earth and we can see different aspects of it like vegetation and carbon dioxide, clouds and precipitation, changes in the massive ice sheets and so much more. We also live and work in space, the International Space Station. And by doing that, that sort of makes us think about sustainability. Everything on the International Space Station we have to bring with us. And so, we are thoughtful about that.
Host: What are some of the current NASA climate-related missions that best assist decision makers?
Calvin: Yeah. We have a variety of missions and instruments in orbit right now that can show us everything from land surface changes to night lights and beyond. And we provide that information. We work with local decision makers and first responders and governments to provide that information in near real time. So just as an example, for something like wildfires we can see where fires are burning. We can look at emissions associated with fire and the air quality concerns that might emerge from that, whether they’re close to the fire or further afield. We can look at burn scars and burn perimeters. We also can give a sense of fuel for fire by looking at how dry the conditions are and try to get a sense of what fuel for fire is available. And we do this for not just wildfires, but other sorts of natural disasters. We’re always working with local responders and decision makers there with our Earth observations and our Applied Science tools.
We have a lot of instruments in orbit that can look at different things. So, like I said, we can look at carbon dioxide, which is really important as a driver of climate change. And so, we can see how that’s changed over time. We have instruments that will help us understand precipitation. We can look at how that’s changed. And what we’re seeing with climate change is increases in heavy precipitation events in some places. And so, we can look at that there.
Host: Could you fill us in on missions planned for the future?
Calvin: Yeah, so we have a lot of exciting missions coming up. Just in 2022, we have missions that’ll help us better understand mineral dust, tropical cyclones, surface waters. I’ll just go through a little bit more on each of those. So, in terms of mineral dust, mineral dust is really important for regional climate and air quality. And air quality has impacts for both ecosystems and human health. And so, we have an instrument called EMIT that’s going to on the International Space Station this summer that’ll help us better understand that. And what EMIT will help us try to understand is the sources of mineral dust and the color of mineral dust. Because mineral dust reflects sunlight, so better understanding its properties gives us a better sense of how is it doing on inflecting sunlight? What does that mean for regional and local climate?
For the mission we have launching in November called SWOT, this is going to help us look at surface waters. It’ll give us a global survey of the amount of water that’s running through rivers and lakes, which is really important for human systems. We use water to grow crops. We use water to produce energy. And knowing how much water we have available now and how that changes over time is really important when we’re trying to understand water scarcity. SWOT’s also going to give us a better sense of the oceans, so we’ll be able to understand the role of oceans in climate change. Oceans absorb a lot of heat and carbon on their surfaces, and then ocean circulation mixes that up. And so how much more carbon and heat we can absorb in the future depends on those patterns. And SWOT’s going to give us a better understanding of the oceans going forward.
Host: And could you fill us in on missions planned beyond 2022?
Calvin: One of the things I’m really looking forward to is the Earth System Observatory. We’re working on designing this now, but it’s a set of satellites that are going to work together to provide this 3D holistic picture of the Earth. So not just one aspect of it, but all of the Earth from the surface up to the atmosphere. And some of those missions will help us understand changes in the surface itself. So, we can look at things like ice sheet dynamics and ice sheet collapse, or landslides. Other missions are going to help us better understand clouds and aerosols and the atmosphere, which is really important for understanding how much future climate will change.
Host: Your passion and your excitement really come through when you start talking about what NASA’s doing in this area. What was it that got you interested and going in this direction in your career?
Calvin: Yeah, so I’ve always been someone that spent a lot of time outside. When I grew up, we spent a lot of time boating and hiking. And over time I’ve gotten into biking and just being outside. And so, in grad school, I started doing research on climate change. My background was in math and computer science. And to me, climate was this way of bringing together my technical skills with something that mattered to me, the Earth. And then the whole time, since I was a kid, I’ve always admired NASA and everything they do. I feel like NASA is this kind of place where really smart people get together and solve really hard problems. And so, when I got the opportunity to come here, it just seemed like a perfect fit. I get to talk about climate at a place that really is impactful for the world.
Host: Kate, NASA has such a wide variety of climate science activities across the agency. As the Senior Climate Advisor, how are you bringing them all together?
Calvin: Yeah, that’s a really great point about the breadth of the climate research. So, we often talk about the Earth Science missions, which are really critical for understanding the Earth. Both observing it, tracking its changes over time, as well as we have models within the Earth Sciences Division that help us both understand processes and give us a window into the future so we can look at where we might go with climate change in the future.
We also have climate change elsewhere in the agency and research related to that that’s going on. So we develop technologies that can help us mitigate or adapt to climate change. So one element of that is our Aeronautics team, which has been working with industry for decades to try to reduce energy use and emissions associated with aircraft. And they have a bunch of activities going on now that can help the aviation industry improve in the future, including new aircraft design, better operations and new fuels that might reduce emissions in the future.
And throughout the agency, part of my job is to bring that together so people know what’s going on and they can use that information when they need it. So, in addition to doing research on climate, NASA’s also vulnerable to climate change. We have centers on low lying regions and coastal regions that are vulnerable to things like sea level rise and hurricanes and storm surge. We also have centers out in California that are vulnerable to wildfires and droughts. And one of the things we’re working to do within the agency is to bring our science research to our facilities managers so that they understand the climate change they might face and can be better prepared for that.
Host: And then how do you connect climate science research with the rest of the agency’s research?
Calvin: Yeah, we can learn a lot from the rest of the agency’s research that helps us better understand climate. So, one thing is just in terms of planetary sciences. Physics is physics and chemistry is chemistry. So whatever planet you’re studying, if you understand what the surface conditions look like and what the composition of the atmosphere is, then you can understand what’s going on there. And so we can learn a lot from other planets about Earth. Just as an example of that, we’ve learned a lot from Venus that’s helped us better understand Earth. Venus was once thought to be, it was likely a blue planet with liquid water, and it’s undergone some pretty severe climate changes. And now it’s really, really hot on the surface and its atmosphere is very high in carbon dioxide. Some of the research done decades ago into the greenhouse gas effect and ozone on Venus has informed our understanding of the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion on Earth.
The drivers are really different. So those changes on Earth were driven by emissions from human activity, but some of the processes are the same, and so we can learn from that. And some of our other planetary science missions, we’re hoping to learn things from those that’ll also better help us understand Earth. We also, some of the technologies we develop when we’re exploring the universe, have applications for Earth Science missions. So just as one example there, the James Webb Space Telescope, some of the technologies used in the sensors there have been used on the missions that are observing carbon dioxide on Earth now.
Host: What is NASA doing to make climate data more accessible and usable?
Calvin: It’s a really big area for us right now. So, we’re at a point in time where people are experiencing climate change and it’s impacting their daily lives and the decisions they might make. Whether it’s a farmer thinking about what crops to grow, or someone looking to buy a house and wondering whether or not it’s at risk of flooding. And so, we have all of this information about the Earth, not just data, but also tools and models. And we’re working to make sure that that’s accessible to the public and to decision makers, so that when someone’s thinking about what they need to do, they can make an informed decision. And for us, that’s not just about making it freely available, but also making it accessible and usable. And so, part of that is about releasing not just the end result data, but also the tools and resources that we’ve used along the way. Some of that is also just making it in easier-to-use formats, like available and accessible on the cloud. We’re also working on providing training and resources so that people can use the information that we have.
Host: You mentioned the tools and the information. How does technology development factor into the agency’s climate science efforts?
Calvin: Yeah, we do a lot of technology development throughout the agency and a lot of that has benefits on Earth. So, in terms of aviation, some of the research we’ve done to develop with the aviation industry has led to reductions in energy use and emissions in the past. We’re also developing new technologies that could be used in the future. So later this summer we’re going to be testing an all-electric airplane called the X-57. This will let us test the air worthiness of battery and electric technologies.
In our Space Operations team, when we’re living and working in the International Space Station, we’ve learned a lot and developed a lot of technologies there that have applications on Earth. Some of the technology in the water processing system on station has been used on Earth in parts of the world where they didn’t have access to clean water. We also grow crops on the International Space Station. And some of the research that’s gone into growing those crops is also used on Earth like the research we’ve done into LED lighting, which is now used in indoor agriculture facilities around the world.
Host: Is there a particular aspect of climate science that is especially grabbing your attention these days?
Calvin: Well, we’re just experiencing more impacts from climate change. You see it in the news, you see it in your daily lives. More heat extremes, more wildfire, more floods and droughts. As we’re experiencing that, it’s impacting people. It matters in the things that we’re doing. And one of the things that’s really important to me is making sure that people have information that they need when they’re making decisions. And that’s one of the things that makes me really excited to be at NASA. NASA’s really committed to being open with the public and giving information that we have and making sure people have what they need as they’re making decisions.
Host: How does NASA’s climate research impact people’s everyday lives?
Calvin: Well, NASA has a lot of research that we’ve done that can help people. Everything from informing farmers about crops, so we have tools available that can help understand water resource needs of crops and help farmers understand the crops growing and the yields of crops. Both now, and then we also have information that can provide an insight into the future. A lot of the information we provide, we do in partnership with other agencies. We work with NOAA, we work with USGS, we work with USDA. And so, you may not always realize it when it’s NASA information, because we’re giving it to you in partnership with someone else. But we have information that can help you understand the world that you live in and help you see the world as we see it. And we’re providing that to everyone everywhere.
Host: Well Kate, it’s been a real pleasure getting to chat with you. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Calvin: Thank you for having me.
Host: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Calvin: I just really want to emphasize I’m really excited about all of the missions we have from Earth Science. We’ve mentioned a few here about tropical cyclones and surface waters. We also have a lot of really exciting missions outside of the Earth Science area. So, I’m really looking forward to seeing images from the James Webb Space Telescope this summer and seeing Artemis 1 launch.
Host: Kate’s bio and links to topics discussed during our conversation are available at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with a show transcript.
In our next episode we’ll continue to look at observations of Earth’s interconnected systems and explore NASA’s role in weather research. May 18 is the release date for that episode, and we’ll look forward to connecting with you then.
We’d love to hear your suggestions for future guests or topics on the podcast. Please share your ideas with us on Twitter at NASA APPEL – that’s app-el – and use the hashtag Small Steps Giant Leaps.
As always, thanks for listening.