Trump’s climate cuts endanger essential Earth Observation research

As Trump announces major cuts to US climate science budgets, Dr Louisa Reynolds looks at the particular impacts on Earth observation research.

ResponsibleSci blog, 20 April 2017


Earth observation programmes are an essential part of research on large-scale environmental problems – especially climate change – as well as providing a whole range of benefits in other areas. The future of American Earth observation is uncertain in the wake of the passing by Congress of the Trump administration’s NASA authorisation bill on 7th March 2017 [1]. Most of NASA’s budget award of $19.5bn will now go towards military programmes and into research and development in human space travel, including missions to the Moon and Mars, most likely at the expense of environmental monitoring. The US government’s non-military spending is being cut by $54bn to $462bn, offset by a $54bn increase in military spending [2].

Trump’s cuts and new priorities

The cutbacks are a major concern to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) [3]. Not only does NOAA monitor climate change effects, they are also responsible for providing warnings to American aviation, sailors and fishing industries on the threats from storms and other environmental factors, and on environmental threats which could cause power cuts to industry and to the public.Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama, estimated that 90% of weather forecasting isobtained from satellite data, and Conrad Lautenbacher, who was the NOAA administrator under President George W. Bush, said, “It will be very hard for NOAA to manage and maintain the kind of services the country requires” with the proposed cuts, which for NOAA’s satellite division is estimated will come to a loss of $513m, 22% of its current funding [3].

The increase in funding for US human spaceflight and robotic space exploration programmes is planned to be 16%, to $1.9bn [4], in aid of the US’s new directive for ‘the large-scale economic development of space’, according to internal documents obtained by Politico [5]. As a player on the international stage for spaceflight, the Trump administration is coming up against strong competition, including the race for ownership of lunar territory and with American plans for the privatisation of low Earth orbit where the majority of artificial Earth observing satellites are found [6]. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) made headlines as far as the UK in February 2017 for breaking a world record by launching an international collection of 104 satellites into space and is also expanding into space exploration, having successfully launching Mars Orbiter in 2013 [7]. Meanwhile China is setting itself up as a formidable contender to lead the space race, having established two space labs, in 2013 being successful in landing the rover Chang’e 3 on the far side of the moon, and being the only country apart from Russia and the US to have launched crews into space [8]. China are also working with Russia on a rover mission to Mars due to launch in 2020. Now that the China National Space Administration is making headway, it is seen as a threat by US Congress [8], who have blocked NASA from working with CNSA on the International Space Station. Europe is currently working on an ExoMars program for a similar timescale [9].

Expanding Earth observation elsewhere

Earth observation science has been making great strides internationally. For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) is running the Copernicus program, on which the EU and European Space Agency (ESA) are due to spend €3.3bn and €1.7bn respectively on infrastructure between 2014 and 2020 [10]. The program includes primarily the launch of a series of Sentinel satellites into space. The satellite sensors include radar imagers and altimeters, as well as imaging from ultra-violet through the visible range to thermal infrared. This enables the collection of global environmental data on land and water cover and condition, land and sea surface temperatures, the cryosphere, atmospheric information from near the Earth’s surface to the edge of space, and topography and altimetry [11]. This data can be used for monitoring human impacts on, for example, climate and air quality, as well as environmental disasters.

The unprecedented quantity of data obtained by the Sentinel sensors will be facilitated by the new European Data Relay System (EDRS) satellite network [12] and supported by scientists and the construction of processing platforms by computer programmers on the ground. The raw Sentinel data is free for any individual and organisation to use [13].

The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) [14] was set up in 2005 and exists as a scientific partnership for coordination and collaboration in Earth observation activities, including those that are space-borne. Over 100 member countries including many in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Australasia, and over 100 companies, are involved. Trump’s cuts to US spending in this field could spur other nations to expand their activities. However, fears have been expressed in some quarters [15, 16] that as the US government loses interest in climate change concerns and no longer takes carbon evaluation into account in policy, we may see a similar trend in other countries.

Dr Louisa Reynolds holds an MSc in remote sensing, and a PhD in environmental science from Lancaster University.


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[4] Foust J (2017). NASA hails planetary science funding while scientists worry about other cuts. Space News.

[5] Bender B (2017). Trump advisers’ space plan: To moon, Mars and beyond. Politico.

[6] Billings L (2016). Trump’s first 100 days: Space. Scientific American.

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[9] ESA (2016). The ExoMars Programme 2016-2020.

[10] European Commision (2014). Earth observation: First Copernicus satellite Sentinel 1A.

[11] ESA (2017). Copernicus – Observing the Earth - Overview.

[12] Pultarova T (2017). SpaceDataHighway to add third node for global coverage. Space News.

[13] European Union (website accessed 2017). What is Copernicus?

[14] Group on Earth Observations (2015). Group on Earth Observations – About.

[15] Mooney C (2016). Dire Results if Trump and Co ignore climate deals. Pretoria News.

[16] Harvey C (2016). The US isn’t the only big country at risk of falling behind on climate change. Meet Brazil. Washington Post.