Fueling Discovery: Taking Earth’s temperature

November 1, 2022 | Tristan L'Ecuyer

This essay by Tristan L’Ecuyer appeared in the 2022 Fueling Discovery special section of the Wisconsin State Journal on 10/23/2022. View the full 2022 Fueling Discovery PDF here.

Growing up, I was fascinated by winter storms that brought a foot or more of snow and with them, the possibility of a snow day. Anticipating these spontaneous holidays made me wonder how meteorologists predicted how much snow would fall, and when. I still spend much of my time thinking about such questions but now for very different reasons—our winters are changing.

Tristan L’Ecuyer is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. He applies global observations to improve climate projections. His group uses data collected by Earth-orbiting satellites to understand how the climate works and how it may change in the future.

You’ve probably noticed that lakes are freezing later and thawing sooner, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling seasons are getting shorter, and flowers are blooming earlier than they did 20 years ago. Wisconsin’s climate is changing, influencing everything from growing seasons to wildlife, and the Arctic is partly responsible.

But the Arctic is changing. Temperatures are increasing and ice is melting, dramatically altering this energy balance. Every continent is feeling the effects of these changes. To adapt, we need to accurately predict how temperature and sea ice changes will unfold in the future. All climate models predict that the Arctic will be much warmer in the coming decades, but exactly how warm is less clear.

We build climate models using measurements, but the harsh polar environment makes it difficult to install and operate instruments on the ground. Satellites have helped fill the void, but today’s technology is unable to measure wavelengths longer than 15 micrometers, which is called the far infrared. Without measuring the complete spectrum, we are unable to construct the full fingerprints of the Arctic climate.

PREFIRE advances the frontier of Earth observations using small satellites known as CubeSats. PREFIRE’s twin satellites, each the size of a cereal box, will measure the complete emission spectra that contain the fingerprints of Arctic climate. Credit: Tristan L’ecuyer

Four years ago, my research group started working with a team of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to fill this gap. We are developing a new satellite mission called the Polar Radiant Energy in the Far InfraRed Experiment, or PREFIRE. Thanks to innovations in small satellite technology, advances in miniaturizing instruments, and new detectors originally created to map minerals on the moon, we are building two small satellites, or CubeSats, to gather data. Each is the size of a cereal box, weighs less than 10 kilograms, and uses far less power than a standard lightbulb.

When our CubeSats launch next year, each will measure the full emission spectrum, opening a new frontier in Arctic research. These measurements will map temperature, moisture, clouds, heat exchanges, snow, and ice—and will stimulate exciting new discoveries across the Arctic and Antarctica. This information will help verify climate models and improve their ability to predict temperature, ice melt, and sea level rise.

Until now, we’ve measured less than half of the Arctic fingerprint, leaving out important details about many phenomena responsible for the climate and weather we experience every day. PREFIRE will complete the picture.

More than 60 years after the University of Wisconsin pioneered satellite meteorology in the late 1950s, we are revolutionizing Earth observations by demonstrating that we can study the climate with CubeSats. More than half of the PREFIRE team is composed of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. This is allowing us to train the next generation of satellite scientists to continue gathering important environmental observations.