Waleed Abdalati, Credit: NASA

Profile | Waleed Abdalati
Director, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder

A Weather Eye on Earth

University of Colorado Boulder professor Waleed Abdalati has had many titles over the years, including ICESat program scientist and, more recently, NASA chief scientist.

“[T]he longer we as a society wait, the greater the sacrifices we have to make to address the situation.”

In September, Abdalati was tapped to co-chair with the University of Maryland’s Antonio Busalacchi a National Research Council committee that will spend two years producing the Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space. It will be the Earth science community’s second decadal survey. The first, released in 2007, set an ambitious 17-mission agenda that NASA and NOAA have struggled to fully implement within their limited budgets.

If past is precedent, Abdalati and Busalacchi can be expected to spend a lot of time in Washington a couple years from now presenting the Earth science community’s new 10-year road map for using satellites to study the home planet’s atmosphere, oceans and land surfaces.

Abdalati and Busalacchi’s committee, which is forming this fall, will bring together scientists, engineers and policy experts from around the United States to develop satellite science priorities for NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey and other federal agencies for 2017-2028.

In his day job, Abdalati leads CIRES, an institute established through a cooperative agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that focuses on understanding Earth and the human relationship with our environment.

Abdalati who spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Leonard David, said the decadal committee will aim to ensure that federal investments in space-based observations provide “the maximum scientific and societal value.”

How important is the upcoming Earth science decadal survey?

The Earth science community has only done this study once before. The main message is that the community cares. It’s trying hard to do the best things it can for the resources that are available, ultimately with an eye toward improving life on Earth. Indispensable tools for doing that are space-based observations.

When will the decadal survey be underway?

There is a steering committee that we envision to be about 18 people, and we are hoping to have that in place this fall. The structure of the study, the best approach, will depend on the steering committee. So I don’t want to prejudge the study’s structure. But the one message is that engagement will be broad as we seek to collect input from all aspects of Earth system science.

Does the plan include a look at the array of international Earth observations and potential coordination of efforts?

I wouldn’t say look at coordination. I would say consideration of how they figure into the framework we are trying to achieve in this country. As we develop priorities, it should be done with an awareness of what else is out there. What other nations are doing, that will certainly factor in.

You are engaging multiple U.S. agencies, but they all must have their own priorities?

Each agency has its priorities, but they are looking through this survey of community input to identify what those priorities should be and how we may want to achieve them. Exploring the processes of how the Earth system works, there’s a lot of overlap. Putting it all together — land processes, the weather, climate processes, understanding the health of the oceans — is what we call environmental intelligence. The survey is seeking to provide a community-based view and consensus on what we think as a community is important for agencies to be doing from space.
We’re in interesting times. We know more. Our models are better. Our observations have been longer term and we have more of them. But the challenges are still quite large.

Why is it that when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues its assessment of climate change, making use of scientific, technical and socioeconomic information produced worldwide, it becomes a third-rail type of document?

It does get politicized. People either see the IPCC as supporting their view or it runs counter to their view, and they see scientists self-perpetuating their own fields or whatever.

I think the IPCC report is a very good tool for people who just want to know what scientists think and what is the state of our planet. If people read it thoughtfully, it takes you to a place that’s been arrived at scientifically and represents an enormous consensus. Yes, these things get politicized. But it’s not the fault of the reports. It’s not the fault of the communities that put them together. IPCC is a review document of what we know and what we don’t know. I believe it’s a very honest assessment.

Over the next several years, how important is “continuity of data” — that is, given all the sensor suites we have now and going up — how critical is it to maintain a data stream from year to year?

We really need some of these data streams to be continuous. Gaps can cause some serious problems. Some of our predictive and process models rely on certain types of data, and the absence of such observations — or significant gaps — introduces new uncertainties. In addition, sustained and continual observations allow us to accurately characterize variability, and it is only by characterizing that variability of a process or phenomenon that we can understand the significance of trends we see in the data. If there is a break in data or the data stream ends, our ability to understand the variability and the meaning of trends is compromised.

Of course we also can’t remain stagnant. We need to continue to develop new observing capabilities. This means we can’t maintain every type of observation forever, so the challenge is figuring out the data sets for which the value of developing new types of observations outweighs the consequences of losing continuity.

What’s the role of technology for better Earth monitoring?

My hope is that it will push us to more affordable spacecraft. Bringing down the launch costs would be huge. What are the observables that we wish we could have that we don’t have, those we still have to rely on ground observations? Three-dimensional winds in the atmosphere are one example, as well as increasing the sampling, increasing the resolution, and increasing the reliability of systems. But the big thing is what opportunities exist from cubesats, from small satellites? Bringing down the cost of observation, that’s where I see technology playing a major role.

In the broader picture, there are those that say “fixing” Earth’s climate is solvable right now. Others contend we’re at a point of no return and it’s a coming apocalypse. What’s your feeling?

I characterize it this way: I don’t know what solvable really means. Solvable could mean we go back to how we were 50 years ago and everything’s fine. Or solvable means that we avert the worst consequences that one might think could happen. The way I look at it is that the longer we as a society wait, the greater the sacrifices we have to make to address the situation.

I believe that we are past the point of going back to how it was, so any strategy is going to require adaptation. The die is cast in some sense. Whether that means horrible things lie ahead or not, I can’t say. But what I can say with confidence, based on the scientific information, we are looking at a different future than our past. And it’s going to be a future with challenges. Our success as a society to meet those challenges really depends on how big the changes are that come, how rapidly they come, and our ability to anticipate those changes and prepare for them.


How do you define those challenges and how will they play into the decadal survey?

The Earth is an incredibly complex system and our ability to successfully function in that system and thrive in that system — not just survive, although that’s one dimension of it, we all want to survive — but we want to thrive. We want the best relationship with our environment that we can achieve. That requires understanding. Understanding requires observations. It requires models. It requires that they work together smartly and that the information derived from these observations and models is usable to people. So these are all the challenges that factor in to try and figure out how we observe the Earth system from space. How do we make it work? These are the elements that are going to feed into the next couple years of effort.

How important is communicating to the public what’s being learned about the wellbeing of Earth?

I get that there’s a lot on the public’s mind. But I think this is going to be the legacy of today’s human race. I think people are feeling it. The military is saying that this is serious and paying attention. Industry is saying, from an economic perspective or for the purposes of our identity as a company, this is important. You have average citizens who just plain care. You have governments of nations where this was once taboo to speak of and are now talking about its importance. While I’m not sensing a sea change, I’m simply saying that there are proponents out there. And my hope is that it will grow and carry the day.

Now that you’re back on a college campus, what’s your sense of how capable and willing students are in taking on Earth environmental issues?

Being on a college campus and looking at these young people, I am filled with optimism and I’m filled with concern. The concern is what kind of world are we creating for them to enter? The optimism is that there is so much energy, intelligence and creativity. The optimism always outweighs the concern. But that being said, I think we should all feel an obligation to this generation to leave them a world where their creativity and innovation can go even further, not just overcome the challenges. And you do that by leaving the best world you can.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...