Canada will be keeping tabs on climate change from the sky, thanks to three instruments (and one satellite) coming up in 2031, which will be added to a NASA-led satellite series collectively known as the Atmosphere Observing System (AOS).
The sentinels in the sky will look for changes on Earth to assist in matters ranging from global warming to extreme weather and disaster monitoring. Canada’s contribution is called HAWC (High-altitude Aerosols, Water vapour and Clouds).
“A lot of the science study is going to use modelling of climate and weather modelling tools,” said Yi Huang, McGill University’s lead on the project, in an interview with SkyNews.
The HAWC mission includes three instruments, all tested in the upper atmosphere, that will look for aerosols, water vapour or ice clouds: the Aerosol Limb Imager (ALI), the Spatial Heterodyne Observations of Water (SHOW), and TICFIRE (Thin Ice Cloud in Far Infrared Emissions).
Huang said each instrument has unique properties over similar ones that flew in space before. For example, TICFIRE has excellent coverage across the spectrum of infrared light, which refers to the part of the spectrum that shows heat. Its capabilities in very long infrared wavelengths will especially be useful, as these show the energy radiated by the Earth.
“If you want to monitor climate change, you can verify the climate change is driven by the [planet’s] radiation fueling, for example, by carbon dioxide,” said Huang, referring to one of the greenhouse gases behind global warming.
The other two instruments will see considerable improvements in spatial resolution, showing things such as where water vapour is distributed from the bottom of the atmosphere to the top. According to Huang, this could allow scientists to see how much water is injected into the atmosphere from strong storms — which is important, as the strength of storms continues to increase due to global warming.
As McGill University’s lead on the project, Huang also shares responsibilities with counterparts at the other co-lead institutions: the University of Toronto, the University of Saskatchewan, and l’Université du Québec à Montréal. And the project includes a broad spectrum of parties beyond the universities, including the Canadian Space Agency, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Natural Resources Canada, the National Research Council of Canada, and Canadian aerospace companies with expertise in optics and satellite technology.
Beyond the project, Huang said he is excited for the opportunities this will present for students, postdocs, and research associates, who can “use the expertise during their study and research to, for example, simulate measurements of instruments, and to build retrieval algorithms eventually used [with] direct measurements of the satellites.”
He notes that the HAWC mission represents the first atmospheric science mission in Canada in nearly two decades, and that “This mission is going to bring a much-needed new grant to space-based atmospheric science studies.”
This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.