National Physical Laboratory

Better climate predictions within grasp

A proposed satellite mission TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies), which aims to improve our understanding of the consequences of climate change and could save the global economy up to $30 trillion, has received funding to develop a more detailed design of the technology and identify partners. It is hoped the satellite could be in orbit in less than five years.

Image courtesy of NASA
Image courtesy of NASA

The TRUTHS mission would see a satellite launched that can make very high accuracy measurements of key indicators of climate change to test and constrain the forecasts of climate models - providing the unequivocal evidence to oblige global consensus action on adoption of appropriate mitigation strategies.

The realisation of TRUTHS is one of the long term objectives of the Centre for Carbon Measurement at NPL.

The satellite would have a factor of ten better accuracy than current systems and also be able to calibrate and upgrade the performance of other Earth Observation satellites in space. This would significantly improve our understanding of climate change. It would also improve the quality and value of information from Earth observation data in general, leading to improved weather forecasting, food production and monitoring the health of forests' natural sinks of carbon.

The TRUTHS proposal has been around for some time, but a relatively high price tag meant it previously struggled to secure funding. Thanks to a new approach developed over the past year, and technological advances, it was possible to reduce the complexity of the TRUTHS mission whilst still achieving the accuracy of data needed. Recognising its importance, the UK Space Agency has stepped in to support the project.

Greater accuracy is necessary for climate model forecasts to be trusted. The predicted degree of global warming is based on how models treat factors such as cloud cover and height, aerosols and water vapour in the air. This requires detection of very small trends, e.g. a 1% change in high cloud cover per decade which using current instruments would take at least 30 years. The TRUTHS mission would reduce the time to get a clear picture of the impact of climate change to nearly one third (~12 years). Background noise from natural variability makes measurements over periods shorter than 12 years unreliable, even if we could measure with greater accuracy. So TRUTHS represents the best climate monitoring we can ever achieve.

An economic study, 'Value of information for climate observing systems, Environment Systems and Decisions' (R Cooke, July 2013), suggests the improved confidence in the evidence from such a mission could mean a global economic saving of $5 to $30 trillion in averted damages through better mitigation and adaptation policies which reflect the realities of climate change.

Dr Nigel Fox, Head of Earth Observation and Climate at NPL, who is leading the project said:

"The recent IPCC findings make scary reading. But whilst we are pretty certain about man-made climate change, we don't really know what the effects will be or how quickly they will happen. If governments are to make decisions significantly constraining carbon emissions or major investments like spending money on a new Thames Barrier or relocating entire populations, we need to be pretty sure we are doing the right thing at the right time. Until we know this, it will be all too easy for governments to procrastinate until it's too late."

This current work is funded by the UK Space Agency, through its Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation and Space Technology (CEOI-ST) together with partners Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and support from the National Measurement Office of BIS. It builds on previous work from scientists at Imperial College London, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Mullard Space Science Laboratory and is supported by an international science team which includes NASA and the UK Met Office.

Find out more about TRUTHS

Find out more about the Centre for Carbon Measurement at NPL

For more information, please contact Nigel Fox

Last Updated: 31 Oct 2014
Created: 16 Apr 2014

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