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Suomi NPP: Setting a New Standard for Global Climate Monitoring

David Gonzalez

On October 28, 2011, the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (NPP) spacecraft lifted off from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California and began its scheduled five year mission as a new installment to the NASA fleet of Earth observing systems.  Now in a pole-to-pole orbit around the globe, sensors aboard the NPP platform collect information related to our planet's land, atmosphere, ice, and oceans.  The geospatial information derived from the Suomi NPP platform has the potential to clearly demonstrate the value of continuous earth observation towards understanding the dynamics of climate change, and the impacts to our planet.

Amidst much debate about both the causes and effects of climate change, time is a key theme.  Weather events that occur over a short period of time are easily understood, even if they are unusual or historic.  However, relating a brief weather occurrence to a broader climatic trend that plays out over a longer time period can invite a difference of opinion regarding causation.  Given that our historic weather records are young relative to the hourglass by which the Earth functions, it's not surprising that we lack a good reference point for perceiving changes to climate.  Despite a late start, over the past several decades humanity is using remotely sensed data to amass a record of Earth observations related not only to weather, but to a wide range of interconnected processes and properties of our planet.  The Suomi NPP platform represents the latest effort to use satellite technology to bolster our historical record and gain a broad understanding of how our planet changes over time.

Through the use of five imaging instruments, including the largest, and arguably most important sensor onboard, the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), Suomi NPP collects measurements used to improve understanding of the complex interactions of the earth's natural climatic and ecological systems, and provide for the ability to react to changes based on more accurate predictions.  Together, the instruments will allow scientists and the geospatially inclined to:

  • Measure the relative health of the ozone layer
  • Monitor natural disasters, such as wildfires, volcanic eruptions, snowstorms, droughts, floods, hurricanes and dust plumes
  • Use sounding instruments to collect information about cloud cover, atmospheric temperatures, humidity and other variables to improve the accuracy of weather predictions
  • Map changes to global land vegetation to understand the global carbon cycle and monitor agricultural processes that may predict food shortages and famines
  • Track changes to Earth’s sea ice, land ice and glaciers as indicators of climate change
  • Measure air pollution by tracking soot, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide
  • Maintain a global record of atmospheric, land surface and sea surface temperatures critical to understanding the long-term dynamics of climate change
NASA_Suomi_NPP_Atmosphere_

As the Suomi NPP system collects critical data records of vegetation, clouds, aerosols, sea and land surface temperature, and the productivity of our biosphere, we will gain an unprecedented ability to understand how the components of interconnected Earth systems affect one another and how climate change may be affecting them both individually and collectively.  Ultimately, this knowledge can inform our decisions about how we choose to interact with our natural environment.  In the meantime, here's hoping the Suomi NPP system resoundingly legitimates the need to prioritize continued funding for satellite-based scientific endeavors in the United States.   How will you use NPP VIIRS data?

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