Earlier this month, atmospheric carbon dioxide reached a daily average of 421 parts per million, 50% higher than levels measured before the industrial revolution, according to data gathered at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory.
That information came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory which tracks atmospheric gases and other climate change drivers and their impacts.
Many different organizations within NOAA monitor climate change with data and imagery captured by ground-based, airborne, maritime and satellite sensors. NOAA officials then gauge the accuracy of the information, analyze it and compare it with historical observations to detect trends.
NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information determined, for example, that in March the average temperature in the contiguous United States was 7.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.2 degrees above average for the month. Overall, precipitation for March was 1.5 millimeters below average for 127 years of climate records. Nearly 44 percent of the contiguous United States experienced drought conditions.
NOAA’s climate-monitoring role is likely to expand under the Biden administration. The White House plans to ask Congress to provide $6.9 billion for NOAA, more than $1.4 billion above the agency’s 2021 budget.
“These additional funds would allow NOAA to expand its climate observation and forecasting work and provide better data and information to decision makers, support coastal resilience programs that would help protect communities from the economic and environmental impacts of climate change, and invest in modern infrastructure to enable these critical efforts,” according to the budget blueprint released April 9.
NOAA officials declined to comment on how the agency would allocate that money.
No matter how the budget debate plays out, NOAA officials will continue looking for ways to better explain what they are seeing in the environment, said Karin Gleason, meteorologist and lead for the National Centers for Environmental Information U.S. monthly climate reports. “We will continue to do what we do and try to provide information people can digest and understand with as little latency as possible,” Gleason said.
In addition, NOAA officials are creating products to help people “make better and more informed decisions to navigate the changes in climate-sensitive industries like energy, agriculture and construction,” Gleason said.
As various states experience unusually high or low levels of precipitation compared with historical averages, scientists are considering whether it would be more practical to compute new reference values based on more recent data. Some storms that occurred about once in a hundred years during the last century are becoming more frequent. As a result, it might be more useful to look at reference values generated by data observed over the last 30 years during this time of rapid change, Gleason said.
“It’s a delicate dance to explain what’s happening when the climate is changing at different rates in different regions,” Gleason said.
This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.