NASA launches new satellite to monitor rising sea levels

NASA’s new ocean satellite is set to completely revolutionise the way we collect data on sea levels and the impact of climate change.

It sounds crazy to say now, but when NASA first began its research on rising sea levels in the 1990s, scientists were unsure whether or not climate change was even a contributing factor. Thankfully, doubts on that front have been well and truly ousted since then.

‘The question of whether the oceans go up or not [as the planet heats up] has been settled by satellites, it’s not a question,’ said NASA’s science administrator Thomas Zurbuchen. ‘Just as sure as gravity right here where I’m sitting, these oceans are going up and we need to handle what that does to our lives.’

With that goal in mind, three long decades of research have just culminated in the launch of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich spacecraft, one of the most sophisticated satellites ever built and the first solely intended for the detailed monitoring of sea levels and atmospheric temperature changes.

As the first half of a pair of shiny new ocean satellites – with the ‘Sentinel 6-B’ set to join in five years’ time – the Sentinel-6 is intended to kick-start a meticulous data collection service to sustain both NASA’s and the European Space Agency’s climate research for the next 10 years.

Traditionally, sea levels have been recorded using floating sensors along coastlines called tide gauges, but this method can only record data from single points.

Scientists have longed for a holistic method of tracking the planet as a whole for quite some time. With oceans covering over two thirds of the Earth’s surface, satellites are now providing the perfect way of keeping a watchful eye over the whole picture, allowing for more than just singular blips of data.

Orbiting 830 miles above our atmosphere at speeds of up to 4.5 miles per second, the 2600lb Sentinel-6 will soon collect sea level measurements ‘down to the centimetre for 90% of the world’s oceans,’ using radar technology. Through bouncing electromagnetic signals off the surface of the water and calculating how long it takes for them to return, scientists can accurately determine how much sea levels have risen and are likely to rise in the future across different regions.

Thanks to the continuous melting of ice sheets and glaciers, our waters are heating up and the expanding of water is driving tides further ashore which spells real danger for coastal communities. However, the Sentinel-6’s bird’s eye view and radar anomaly detection may just help to pinpoint water swells and burgeoning storms at source, allowing people plenty of time to put preventative methods in place or to evacuate.

Shot into orbit attached to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket just last week, the Satellite’s complex systems are currently being put through the their paces before the training wheels can come off, but the satellite should be fully operational soon, according to NASA.

The rising of sea levels has accelerated over the last 25 years despite our continued eco-savvy rhetoric that seems unable to translate into global, tangible action. In fact scientists even expect it to continue to speed up in the years ahead. Therefore, it’s vital that the biggest brains continue innovating and investing in solutions like this to push policy changes and ensure the prosperity of future generations.

Nihilism simply isn’t an option. It’s our mess and we have to fix it.

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