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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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UW celebrates 50th anniversary of studying Earth’s climate

Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the study of the Earth’s climate from space, when two University of Wisconsin professors were the first researchers to launch rockets into space for this purpose.

On Oct. 13, 1959 two UW professors, Verner Suomi and Robert Parent, launched the first-ever space satellite designed to measure the effect of solar radiation from Cape Canaveral.

“These early satellites were experiments,” Paul Menzel, UW oceanic and atmospheric sciences professor and researcher, said. “The satellite orbits and the instruments on them were early demonstrations of what is now, in effect, the weather service. The project’s goals went from demonstration to operation.”

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Menzel stressed, however, that in the 50 years since the launch and with the invention and implementation of both computers and the Internet, the science behind the research has matured, but not really changed.

Steve Ackerman, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the UW, agreed.

“Satellites now provide estimates of weather and climate on the global scale, including cloud cover, temperature and winds. Of course we have better instrumentation now. But more importantly, we’ve moved from monitoring to exploring how the atmosphere works by coupling the satellite observations with weather and climate prediction models,” Ackerman said.

The mission was the first of its kind to study the varying levels of radiation both coming into and leaving the atmosphere. This ‘energy budget’ of Earth is still one of the most important issues in understanding climate, according to Ackerman.

According to Menzel, satellites today still measure this energy budget. However, many have become specialized and are now used to help determine how clouds, aerosols and air pollution can effect these shifts in energy.

The differences in energy input and output on the earth also account for nearly all of the daily weather occurrences experienced on Earth. Though some measurements used in the prediction of weather are done from Earth, much of the weather information people take for granted today is collected in space, according to Menzel.

“Satellites provide a bird’s-eye view of developing weather systems. Forecasters use the orbiters to monitor shifting weather systems, including thunderstorms, hurricanes and extra-tropical cyclones,” Ackerman said. “Satellites also provide a global view of the world, covering remote regions where otherwise it would be impossible to collect data. And, thanks to the web, anyone can access quality satellite images with just a few mouse clicks.”

Menzel believes the trends in increased instrument sensitivity and universal access to data will only continue. Though reluctant to admit any specifics as to when, Menzel sees forecasting of weather beyond a week improving significantly and hopes it may one day be possible to predict the seasonal variations like whether winter will be warm or cold.

Ackerman said our understanding of the human impact on the planet — for example, how pollution affects cloud formation and precipitation amount — will only grow with future changes in technology.

Both Menzel and Ackerman echo the belief that only through this understanding of the human interaction with climate, can the effects and the practices that cause them be changed or stopped.

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