From weather forecasting to climate change, NASA’s AIRS builds a legacy

Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder helps researchers predict weather, analyze pollution, monitor volcanoes, and track changing climate. And there’s more.

Since April 13, a blizzard dropped 4 feet of snow on Minot, North Dakota, from a drought-fueled wildfire burned in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and severe storms spawned eight tornadoes in Kentucky. NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) helped forecasters predict these events, since it was launched since 2002. But now AIRS also helps researchers calculate the role climate change plays in these extreme weather events. NASA’s Aqua satellite was launched in May 2002.

“Understanding what happened in the first couple of decades of the 21st century is critical to understanding climate change, and there’s no better record than AIRS to study that,” said Joao Teixeira, AIRS science team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “I see us as guardians of this precious dataset that will be our legacy for future generations.”

Three-dimensional maps of atmospheric temperature and water vapor, the main ingredients for any kind of weather. The instrument proves to be almost immediate success: Within three years after AIRS ‘launch, meteorologists have shown that incorporating AIRS data in weather forecasting models produced a significant increase in accuracy.

NASA’s AIRS instrument tracked and record-breaking heat wave as it intensified in the Pacific Northwest last June. AIRS remains a vital resource for weather forecasting, and 20 years after launch it has also become a resource for understanding the role of climate change in weather events like this. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Looking beyond weather

The AIRS instrument is a spectrometer that breaks radiation into wavelengths, just as a prism does. But where earlier spectrometers in space had 15 or 20 detectors, each detector makes close to 3 million measurements a day. This huge advance in data quality and quantity has not only succeeded in improving weather forecasting, but inspired a new generation of similar spaceborne instruments from space agencies around the world.

In 2002, getting this technology ready to launch required innovative design and skillful construction to accommodate thousands of detectors. The instrument’s creators finally arranged the detectors in 17 long lines, and packaged them on a single word plane assembly. “When I first saw it, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,'” said Tom Pagano, AIRS ‘project manager at JPL. “It was a major engineering achievement for the time.” development of a frictionless cryocooler to cool AIRS ‘detectors, to the instrument that has lasted an extremely long time and is extraordinarily stable.

“Due to the amazing engineering, the data we have now is almost the same quality as it was 20 years ago, when the instrument was new,” Teixeira said.

Stability is essential for scientists to pinpoint the small but persistent signals of climate change from year-to-year noise variations in weather. As the global temperature creeps up to 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial times, AIRS ‘two decades of consistent and multifaceted measurements provide a satellite record of global warming that is second to none. There are other satellite records of an individual greenhouse gases or surface temperature, for example, but no other global data record matches the time span and wide range of wavelengths in the AIRS dataset.

Launched in 2002 aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, AIRS creates 3D maps of air and surface temperature, water vapor, and cloud properties. Its data forms and “fingerprint” of the state of the atmosphere for a given time and place, contributing to climate data for future generations. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Legacy building

When AIRS launched, the mission team aspired to collect data for 15 years, said Pagano. “We put an unimaginable amount of effort into making an instrument that would not fail in orbit. It was the philosophy of how we built these instruments on the Aqua satellite.”

And as the data has kept coming, researchers have found more and more uses for it. Researchers recently used AIRS data to detect atmospheric waves from the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano. Earlier this year, researchers also used AIRS data to quantify the link between humidity and influenza outbreaks. In addition, AIRS data is used to track clouds, carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and other gases and pollutants whose spectral signals fall within the range of infrared wavelengths AIRS detects.

The AIRS team and other researchers are still looking into even more applications of the dataset. “There’s more to mine from this instrument,” Pagano said. “It has such rich information content.”

Tracking and record-breaking heat wave

Provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Citation: From weather forecasting to climate change, NASA’s AIRS builds a legacy (2022, May 6) retrieved 6 May 2022 from

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