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WGN Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling leads the special series Forecast – A Fragile Climate. In his 50 years as a meteorologist, he has seen the atmosphere do things he never thought possible. It’s what compelled him and the WGN team to travel all across the country in search of the very latest climate research and information. There is serious work underway – from tracking Earth’s vital signs to massive climate adaption projects.

In Part 1, Skilling visits his beloved Alaska  an area changing three-times faster than other parts of the world. 

In Part 2, we take you to the epicenter of Earth science, where human brain power and sophisticated instrumentation intersect in the study of our changing planet.

WASHINGTON — When you think of NASA you think of rocket launches, but at the NASA Goddard Space Flight center outside of Washington DC, one of the major focuses is on Earth and what is happening here.

They build big things at Goddard that start small, like the next generation space telescope, Roman. It is just one of multiple Earth-observing projects underway.

Oceanographer Jeremy Werdell showed Tom Skilling and the WGN team around the massive facility.

“We build not only the satellites that carry our instruments but the instruments themselves,” he said.

His mission, called Pace, will help scientists integrate observations of the atmosphere and ocean. 

The Pace Satellite is under construction and development at Goddard and is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in January 2024.

The work at Goddard is powered by the collective minds of thousands. Among them are doctors Tom Neumann and Kelly Brunt. The University of Chicago-educated scientists have studied the cryosphere – ice-covered regions of the world – for more than two decades.

“More often than not, when people talk to researchers about climate change, when lay people talk about climate change, they often incorporate the word ‘believe.’ ‘Do you believe in climate change?’” Brunt said. “And the first thing I want to do is have you guys take the word ‘believe’ out of your lexicon. This is science. There’s no room for ‘believe.’”

They help lead a mission called ICESAT-2 and interpret its findings. ICESAT-2 is a satellite 300 miles above earth. It’s constantly circling the planet along the same 1,387 flight lines.

“It basically measures the height of everything on Earth,” Neumann said. “The laser on ICESAT-2 transmits 10,000 pulses per second so in a long track sense that is a shot on the ground every 70 centimeters.” 

Elevations are determined based on the time it takes the beam of laser light to hit a surface and bounce back to the satellite. The height of cities, buildings and trees can all be measured with centimeter-precision.

“But as the name suggests, it’s really optimized to measure the changes in ice sheets, sea ice and glaciers,” Neumann said.

Brunt said she has been fascinated by snow and ice since childhood.

“As a kid, my family vacations were ski trips, so in my head jumping around on white stuff was the good thing to do,” she said.

She uses the massive amount of data sent down from ICESAT-2 to study what are known as the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

“Our ice sheets are kind of in jeopardy because they are in touch with both our warming atmosphere and our warming ocean,” she said.  “If you really want to study what is changing, it’s really at the fringe, at the edge of the ice sheets.”

The consensus among glaciologists, Brunt said, is diminishing ice sheets will contribute three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century.

“There is some slowness to that that we can work with,” Brunt said. “Talking about engineers, thinking about what is on our coastline and bring it back a bit.”

But there’s another swath of ice that’s generating more immediate concern.

What’s called sea ice – the cap of frozen ocean water – is shrinking in the arctic.

“The other horrible part is that it’s also getting thinner,’ Brunt said. “So we’re losing our old, thick ice. … Sea ice provides a cap over the arctic ocean, and it regulates that interchange between the ocean and the atmosphere. And when you start making changes like that, you start to govern your weather patterns in the arctic, and that ultimately translates to our mid latitudes towards Chicago.”

Dr Dalia Kirschbaum studies how storms intensify as our planet and oceans are warming. 

“What we’re seeing is the nature of what creates storms and makes them intensify, the warming sea surface temps or the winds, those shifts are having meaningful impacts on storms,” she said.

She spoke about NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement Mission – or GPM — which has tracked changes in rainfall over a 20-year-period.

“So if you think about Hurricane Harvey, which really moved into Texas and just sat, and took all of that warm ocean water from the Gulf and then dropped 40 inches of rain in Texas, those types of events, those slow moving rapidly intensifying events, are signatures of how our climate is changing and how storms are manifesting in this new environment,” she said.

Atmospheric scientist and University of Illinois professor emeritus Don Wuebbles has spent a half-century making climate observations not from space, but from the Midwest.

“We’re just at the beginning of what we’re going to be seeing over the coming decades,” he said. “It isn’t just the warming. The warming is an important part of it, but it’s the changes in severe weather, extreme weather events. We had major floods in Kentucky. We’ve seen heat waves in Europe, heat waves in western part of US. … On top of that we have sea level rise.”

He says were at a critical juncture.

“We basically have three choices; we can mitigate; reduce emissions; we can adapt; be more resilient; or we can suffer,” he said. “And right now we’re doing some of all three. And we need to do a lot of mitigation and a lot of adaptation if we’re going to reduce that suffering for the future.”

Earlier Tuesday, NASA launched another Earth-observing satellite called JPSS-2 that will orbit the globe 14 times a day. It will be passing over every single spot on Earth at least twice daily, taking measurements and snapping images that feed daily weather forecasts, help us plan for severe weather and track global climate change. 

Coming up Wednesday in Part 3 of our series, we head out west to Lake Mead. It is the nation’s largest reservoir that supplies 40 million people. Water levels are at historic lows and have been for several years. The team takes a look at the conditions there and what may be the largest climate adaption project in the world.