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Updated 16 September 2008

Observing and Monitoring the Climate System
USGCRP Cross-cutting Activity



Observing and Monitoring the Climate System


Recent Accomplishments

Near-Term Plans

CCSP / USGCRP Observations and Monitoring Working Group Members

For long term plans, see Observing and Monitoring the Climate System chapter of the Strategic Plan for the Climate Change Science Program (2003) posted on CCSP web site.


Sichuan Aster LULCC imageCCSP provides active stewardship of observations that document the evolving state of the climate system, that allow for improved understanding of its changes, and that contribute to an improved predictive capability for society. Some of these observations are not part of the CCSP budget (e.g., operational satellites such as NPOESS) but are crucial to its success. A core CCSP activity is U.S. participation in the broad-based strategy of the international Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) in monitoring atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial domains with an appropriate balance of in situ and remotely sensed observations. As the U.S. plan for climate observations moves forward, it strives to build on the GCOS Implementation Plan (see here). CCSP endorses the use of this plan as a blueprint for guiding GCOS-related climate observation activities documented in the chapter on “Observing and Monitoring the Climate System.” In FY 2009, observing activities by CCSP agencies will continue to focus on monitoring the polar climate as part of the International Polar Year (IPY) series of international cooperative studies. IPY plans to advance polar observations by establishing a variety of new multidisciplinary observatories using the latest technologies in sensor web (network of spatially distributed sensor platforms that wirelessly communicate with each other) and powerefficient designs. Data from these, as well as more traditional surface- and space-based observatories, will initiate long-term, high-quality sustained measurements needed to detect future climate change. The United States plans to increase its efforts to observe the polar atmosphere, ice, and ocean, as well as to leverage its investments in polar research with international partners. A continuing challenge to CCSP agencies is ensuring the long-term integrity and understandability of data products provided by remote-sensing and in situ observing systems. Key parts of this challenge include continuing to integrate surface climate observations via the Climate Reference Network and modernized Historical Climatology Network; expanding the GCOS observing network via activities such as the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility and the GCOS Reference Upper Air Network; and support for a number of research-related satellite missions described in Chapter 8 of this report.

Strategic Research Questions

Observing and Monitoring the Climate System

Goal 12.1: Design, develop, deploy, and integrate observation components into a comprehensive system.

Goal 12.2: Accelerate the development and deployment of observing and monitoring elements needed for decision support.

Goal 12.3: Provide stewardship of the observing system.

Goal 12.4: Integrate modeling activities with the observing system.

Goal 12.5: Foster international cooperation to develop a complete global observing system.

Goal 12.6: Manage the observing system with an effective interagency structure.

Data Management and Information

Goal 13.1: Collect and manage data in multiple locations.

Goal 13.2: Enable users to discover and access data and information via the Internet.

Goal 13.3: Develop integrated information data products for scientists and decisionmakers.

Goal 13.4: Preserve data.

See Chapter 12 and 13 of the Strategic Plan for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program for detailed discussion of these goals.

Two overarching questions are identified in the CCSP Strategic Plan for “Observing and Monitoring the Climate System” and “Data Management and Information”. These questions continue to offer guidance to these elements of the program:

  • How can we provide active stewardship for an observation system that will document the evolving state of the climate system, allow for improved understanding of its changes, and contribute to improved predictive capability for society?
  • How can we provide seamless, platform-independent, timely, and open access to integrated data, products, information, and tools with sufficient accuracy and precision to address climate and associated global changes?

High-quality, long-term observations of the global environment are essential for defining the current state of the Earth’s environmental system, its history, and its variability. This task requires both space- and surface-based observation systems. Climate observations encompass a broad range of environmental observations, including (1) routine weather observations, which are collected consistently over a long period of time; (2) observations collected as part of research investigations to elucidate processes that contribute to maintaining climate patterns or their variability; (3) highly precise, continuous observations of climate system variables collected for the express purpose of documenting long-term (decadal to centennial) change; and (4) observations of climate proxies, collected to extend the instrumental climate record to remote regions and back in time.

Canada TMO ice

The United States contributes to the development and operation of several global observing systems, both research and operational, that collectively provide a comprehensive measure of climate system variability and climate change processes. These systems are a baseline Earth-observing system and include NASA, NOAA, and USGS Earth-observing satellites and extensive in situ observational capabilities. CCSP also supports several ground-based measurement activities that provide the data used in studies of the various climate processes necessary for better understanding of climate change. U.S. observational and monitoring activities contribute significantly to several international observing systems, including the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) principally sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO); the Global Ocean Observing System sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC); and the Global Terrestrial Observing System sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The latter two have climate-related elements being developed jointly with GCOS.

A specific subset of the GCOS observing activities for 2007 and 2008 (and into 2009) are the CCSP-sponsored polar climate observations made in cooperation with the International Polar Year (IPY). During 2009, IPY will come to a formal conclusion; however, many polar observing systems will continue to operate. Several agencies are working together to establish an Arctic Observing Network that will build on systems deployed during IPY and provide for coordinated efforts to sustain key climate observations. This cooperation will extend to international partners to encourage a pan-Arctic approach to observation and data sharing.

Remotely sensed observations continue to be a cornerstone of CCSP. The Cloud- Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO) lidar and CloudSat radar instruments are providing an unprecedented examination of the vertical structure of aerosols and clouds over the entire Earth. These data—when combined with data from the Aqua, Aura, and Parasol satellites orbiting in formation (the “ATrain”)— will enable systematic pursuit of key issues including the effects of aerosols on clouds and precipitation, the strength of cloud feedbacks, and the characteristics of difficult-to-observe polar clouds. The increasing volume of data from remote-sensing and in situ observing systems presents a continuing challenge for CCSP agencies to ensure that data management systems are able to handle the expected increases.

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