Editor’s Note: The Press Democrat publishes a series of articles about Sonoma County innovators fighting global warming. We invite readers to submit stories of people locally involved in climate change. Share your ideas by contacting our editor, [email protected].
Tucked upstairs in an office building a few blocks north of Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa is the headquarters of Remote Sensing Systems, one of the nation’s leading private companies. dedicated to measuring global warming.
For decades, company scientists have analyzed data collected by satellites, and they are making this data freely available to researchers around the world with an unwavering determination to accurately measure changes in the complex system known as the climate name.
“Our work is essential to understanding the climate and climate change. We are working very hard to get the right answer. We’re all about precision,” lead researcher Carl Mears said in a remote interview with three of the scientists in late February.
“Our main customers are scientists. It’s a labor of love for us,” said company founder and CEO Frank Wentz.
Data from satellites is particularly valuable for understanding climate because it measures the Earth and allows scientists to look for geographically distributed changes, Mears said.
It’s also important because it’s real, he said. Much of climate analysis today uses computer models to try to predict future challenges. Satellite data allows scientists to compare computer model predictions to actual results.
“It’s really important to monitor what’s really going on. Otherwise, when you make predictions with climate models, how do you know it’s accurate? said Mears.
Remote Sensing Systems is attracting worldwide attention for its work and the scientists who support it:
When the Reuters news service released its list of the world’s most influential climate scientists in April, for example, Wentz was No. 469 out of 1,000 and the only one from the private sector. All the others belonged to universities, think tanks, government agencies, institutes, laboratories, etc.
Wentz is also a member of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union, and remote sensing systems scientists contribute to the society’s annual State of the Climate Report.
The work of remote sensing scientists sometimes throws them right in the middle of controversies that disrupt global efforts to understand global warming.
For example, their analyzes show that the troposphere, which corresponds to the lower levels of the atmosphere, has not warmed as quickly as most climate models predict. These facts have caught the attention of global warming skeptics.
Remote sensing systems scientists say the temperature in the troposphere over the tropics, which is believed to play a key role in the climate system, has risen by 0.18 degrees centigrade per decade, while computer models average 0. .30 degrees, according to the American Meteorological Society’s 2020 climate report.
But the Santa Rosa scientists also say their research consistently tells them this: the earth is getting warmer, largely because of people releasing more greenhouse gases. And while the exact amount of warming is not yet known, it is less than some models claim and it is something humanity has to deal with.
Wentz founded Remote Sensing Systems in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1974, moved it to the Bay Area in 1978, and settled the company permanently in Santa Rosa in 1987. His 11-member team, which includes two of his daughters, an environmental scientist and lawyer, collects and analyzes weather data from a network of research satellites.
These satellites have been sent aloft by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the US Navy and others.
Thirteen of the satellites are still functioning and pass over Sonoma County twice a day.
Instruments on these satellites observe the earth from a distance and record microwave emissions from clouds, water vapor, rain, oxygen and temperatures on land, in the ocean and at different heights. of the atmosphere. Satellites send this data to ground facilities where Remote Sensing Systems employees download it, study it, help ensure the system is working properly, and create a free public record.
Years ago, Wentz realized that his research was important for tracking the challenges of Earth’s climate.
“I noticed the amount of water in the atmosphere. Microwaves can see it. The water vapor kept rising more and more, which corresponds to global warming.
In the late 1990s, when some scientists started saying that Earth’s atmosphere was cooling, “I said it couldn’t be. I knew my data,” Wentz said. “If you’re going to measure, you better do it right.”
Today, the seven Wentz scientists spend much of their time looking for problems, inconsistencies or any signs that the accuracy of the data is compromised by, for example, satellites drifting off their usual path, instruments miscalibrated or television signals bouncing off the ground and hitting a satellite.
“We are looking for consistency between the different satellites. We’re comparing decades, months, years,” Wentz said. “Just recently, we detected changes in a Japanese satellite and developed a way to fix it.”
Wentz and his team say scientific analysis of satellite data and problem solving are key to understanding what lies ahead.
“To protect the future, we need to understand the past,” he said.
That’s why recent shifts in federal priorities are worrisome, he said.
While Remote Sensing Systems does commercial work, for example for Ball Aerospace in Colorado, and has obtained occasional grants, it has relied primarily on ongoing research contracts with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to pay its employees and make an 8% profit, Wentz said.
But last year, NASA moved to grants that don’t cover profits, jeopardizing Wentz’s business model of making his team’s work accessible to all scientists.
“We have over 7,000 registered users. Over 1,000 articles have used our data. It is our greatest value. Now we have to try to find new funding,” Wentz said.
Mary Fricker is a retired Democratic newspaper business reporter. She lives near Graton. Contact her at [email protected]