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How is the global earth system changing?

Earth is currently in a period of warming. Over the last century, Earth's average temperature rose about 1.1°F (0.6°C). In the last two decades, the rate of our world's warming accelerated and scientists predict that the globe will continue to warm over the course of the 21st century. Is this warming trend a reason for concern? After all, our world has witnessed extreme warm periods before, such as during the time of the dinosaurs. Earth has also seen numerous ice ages on roughly 11,000-year cycles for at least the last million years. So, change is perhaps the only constant in Earth's 4.5-billion-year history.

Scientists note that there are two new and different twists to today's changing climate: (1) The globe is warming at a faster rate than it ever has before; and (2) Humans are the main reason Earth is warming. Since the industrial revolution, which began in the mid-1800s, humans have attained the magnitude of a geological force in terms of our ability to change Earth's environment and impact its climate system.

Since 1900, human population doubled and then doubled again. Today more than 6.5 billion people inhabit our world. By burning increasing amounts of coal and oil, we drove up carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by 30 percent. Carbon dioxide is a "greenhouse gas" that traps warmth near the surface.

Humans are also affecting Earth's climate system in other ways. For example, we transformed roughly 40 percent of Earth's habitable land surface to make way for our crop fields, cities, roads, livestock pastures, etc. We also released particulate pollution (called "aerosols") into the atmosphere. Changing the surface and introducing aerosols into the atmosphere can both increase and reduce cloud cover. Thus, in addition to driving up average global temperature, humans are also influencing rainfall and drought patterns around the world. While scientists have solid evidence of such human influence, more data and research are needed to better understand and quantify our impact on our world's climate system.

Related missions:

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DivisionNameLaunch DatePhase
Earth Aqua
Aqua obtains a set of precise atmosphere and oceans measurements to understand their role in Earth's climate and its variations. Aqua carries six state-of-the-art instruments to observe the Earth's oceans, atmosphere, land, ice and snow covers, and vegetation, providing high ...
20020504 May 04, 2002 3Operating
Earth Aquarius
Aquarius is a focused satellite mission to measure global sea surface salinity (SSS). Its instruments measure changes in SSS equivalent to about a "pinch" (i.e., 1/6 of a teaspoon) of salt in 1 gallon of water. By measuring SSS over ...
20110610 June 10, 2011 4Past
Earth Aura
The Aura satellite hosts a suite of scientific instruments designed to make the most comprehensive measurements ever undertaken of atmospheric trace gases. Aura's objective is to study the chemistry and dynamics of the Earth's atmosphere with emphasis on the upper ...
20040715 July 15, 2004 3Operating
The CALIPSO satellite was developed to help scientists answer significant questions and provide new information about the effects of clouds and aerosols (airborne particles) on changes in the Earth's climate. Understanding these components will provide the international science community with ...
20060428 April 28, 2006 3Operating
CHAMP generated, for the first time, simultaneously highly precise gravity and magnetic field measurements over a 10 year period. This allows the tracing of spatial and time variations of both fields for a long time. The provision of regularly radio ...
20000715 July 15, 2000 4Past
The Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Mission has been recommended in the NRC Decadal Survey as a key component of the future climate observing system. This mission is part of SMD's Earth Systematic Missions program.
1Under Study
Earth Earth Observing-1 (NMP)
The NMP EO-1 mission is an advanced land-imaging mission that will demonstrate new instruments and spacecraft systems. EO-1 will validate technologies contributing to the significant reduction in cost of follow-on Landsat missions. The future of Earth science measurements requires that ...
20001121 November 21, 2000 3Operating
Earth ERBS
Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS), expected to have a two-year operation life, provided scientific data about the Earth's ozone layer for more than two decades. ERBS observations have also been used to determine how human activities such as the use ...
19841005 October 05, 1984 4Past
Earth GOES D - H
GOES-4 advanced meteorologists’ capabilities by continuously profiling vertical temperature and water vapor. This major advancement permitted, for the first time, the monitoring of frame-to-frame movement of water vapor concentrations, a technique introduced by the European Meteosat-1 satellite. These missions are ...
19800909 September 09, 1980 4Past
Earth GOES I - M
The GOES I-M satellites are the primary element of U.S. weather monitoring and forecast operations and are a key component of NOAA's National Weather Service operations and modernization program. These missions are part of the GOES / POES program.
19940413 April 13, 1994 3Operating
Earth GOES N - P
GOES - N/O/P is the next series of GOES satellites. The multi-mission GOES series N - P will be a vital contributor to weather, solar, and space operations and science. These missions are part of the GOES / POES program.
20100304 March 04, 2010 3Operating
Earth GPM
GPM Constellation follows the success of Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) in initiating the measurement of global precipitation, a key climate factor. Its science objectives are: to improve ongoing efforts to predict climate by providing near-global measurement of precipitation, its ...
20140227 February 2014 3Operating
The primary goal of the GRACE mission is to accurately map variations in the Earth's gravity field over its 5-year lifetime. This provides scientists from all over the world with an efficient and cost-effective way to map the Earth's gravity ...
20020317 March 17, 2002 3Operating
Earth ICESat
ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite) was the benchmark Earth Observing System mission for measuring ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics. This mission is part of SMD's Earth Systematic ...
20030112 January 12, 2003 4Past
Earth Jason-1
Jason was an oceanography mission to monitor global ocean circulation, improve global climate predictions, and monitor events such as El Nino conditions and ocean eddies. The Jason-1 satellite carried a radar altimeter, and it was a follow-on mission to the ...
20011207 December 07, 2001 4Past
Earth LAGEOS 1&2
LAGEOS, or Laser Geodynamics Satellites, are a series of satellites designed to provide an orbiting benchmark for geodynamical studies of the Earth. LAGEOS 1 & 2 provide long-term data sets to monitor the motion of the Earth's tectonic plates; measure ...
19760504 May 04, 1976 3Operating
Earth Landsat 7
Landsat 7 is a joint NASA/USGS mission that launched in April 1999 to extend the Landsat record of multispectral, medium resolution, seasonal global coverage or Earth's land surfaces. Since May 2003, a failed Scan Line Corrector has resulted in a ...
19990415 April 15, 1999 3Operating
Earth LDCM/Landsat 8
Landsat 8 is the latest NASA/USGS mission to extend the Landsat record of multispectral, medium resolution, seasonal global coverage or Earth's land surfaces.
20130211 February 11, 2013 3Operating
Earth MOMS
The Modular Optoelectronic Multispectral Scanner (MOMS) is a scanning system (based on CCD technique) for airborne and predominantly spaceborne geoscientific remote sensing application.
19830618 June 18, 1983 4Past
Earth Nimbus
The Nimbus series of missions was the United States’ primary research and development platform for satellite remote-sensing of the Earth. The satellites increased the scientific community’s knowledge of the Earth’s atmosphere, land surface and ecosystems, weather, and oceanography.
19640827 August 27, 1964 4Past
Earth NOAA-N
NOAA-N broadcasts data directly to thousands of users around the world and continues to provide a polar-orbiting platform to support the environmental monitoring instruments for imaging and measurement of the Earth's atmosphere, its surface, and cloud cover. Observations include information ...
20050520 May 20, 2005 3Operating
The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is a satellite system used to monitor global environmental conditions, and collect and disseminate data related to weather, atmosphere, oceans, land and near-space environment. This mission is part of the GOES/POES program.
20140331 March 31, 2014 2Development
Earth OCO
OCO provided space-based observations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal human-initiated driver of climate change. This mission used mature technologies to address NASA's highest priority carbon cycle measurement requirement. OCO generated precise global maps of the abundance of CO2 ...
20090224 February 24, 2009 4Past
Earth Operation IceBridge
Operation IceBridge is a six-year airborne campaign designed to capture geophysical measurements of changes in polar ice sheets and sea ice during a gap in the space-based observations of ICESat and ICESat-2.
20091015 October 15, 2009 3Operating
Earth OSTM
OSTM measures sea surface height to an accuracy of < 3.3 cm every ten days. Sea surface topography measured by satellite altimeters has numerous applications important to global environmental monitoring including predicting hurricane intensification, improving tide models, mapping deep ocean ...
20080620 June 20, 2008 3Operating
Earth QuikSCAT
QuikSCAT mission is intended to record sea-surface wind speed and direction data under all weather and cloud conditions over Earth's oceans. QuikSCAT was initiated as a "quick recovery" mission to help reduce the ocean-wind vector data gap created by the ...
19990619 June 19, 1999 3Operating
The SAGE III instrument is used to study ozone, a gas found in the upper atmosphere that acts as Earth’s sunscreen.
20160301 March 2016 2Development
Earth SAGE III – Meteor-3M
The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III – Meteor-3M (SAGE III – Meteor-3M) was an Earth Observing System (EOS) - joint mission between the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Russian Space Agency (RSA). The SAGE III ...
20011210 December 10, 2001 4Past
Earth SeaWinds (ADEOS II)
The SeaWinds scatterometer is a specialized microwave radar that measures near-surface wind velocity (both speed and direction) under all weather and cloud conditions over Earth's oceans. This is a twin sister to the QuikSCAT sensor and flies on the Japanese ...
20021214 December 14, 2002 3Operating
Earth SMAP
The Soil Moisture Active-Passive (SMAP) will use a combined radiometer and high-resolution radar to measure surface soil moisture and freeze-thaw state, providing for scientific advances and societal benefits. This mission is part of SMD's Earth Systematic Missions program.
20150129 January 2015 3Operating
SORCE is a NASA-sponsored satellite mission that will provide state-of-the-art measurements of incoming x-ray, ultraviolet, visible, near-infrared, and total solar radiation. The measurements provided by SORCE specifically address long-term climate change, natural variability and enhanced climate prediction, and atmospheric ozone ...
20030125 January 25, 2003 3Operating
Earth SRTM
The goal of SRTM, a joint project of NASA, NIMA, and the German and Italian space agencies, was to map the world in three dimensions. In its 11-day mission on STS-99 in February 2000, SRTM collected an unprecedented 8.6 Terabytes ...
20000211 February 11, 2000 4Past
Earth Terra
Terra (formerly EOS AM-1) is the flagship satellite of NASA's Earth observing systems. Terra is the first EOS (Earth Observing System) platform and provides global data on the state of the atmosphere, land, and oceans, as well as their interactions ...
19991218 December 18, 1999 3Operating
The Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer, launched in July 1996 onboard an Earth Probe Satellite (TOMS/EP), continues NASA's long-term daily mapping of the global distribution of the Earth's atmospheric ozone. This NASA-developed instrument, measures ozone indirectly by mapping ultraviolet light emitted ...
19960702 July 02, 1996 4Past
Earth TOPEX/Poseidon
TOPEX/Poseidon monitored global ocean circulation, improved global climate predictions, and tracked El Niño conditions and ocean eddies. The mission's most important achievement was to determine the patterns of ocean circulation - how heat stored in the ocean moves from one ...
19920810 August 10, 1992 4Past
Earth TRMM
TRMM is a joint mission between NASA and the National Space Development Agency (NASDA) of Japan. TRMM is particularly devoted to determining rainfall in the tropics and subtropics of the Earth. These regions make up about two thirds of the ...
19971127 November 27, 1997 4Past
Earth UARS
Launched from the Space Shuttle Discovery on September 15, 1991, UARS orbited the Earth more than 78,000 times, using 10 onboard scientific instruments to collect data on a variety of chemicals, including carbon dioxide, ozone, chlorine, methane, nitrogen oxides and ...
19910912 September 12, 1991 4Past