By John Fialka

Smile. This is the year we begin to debate a planetwide selfie showing the impacts of climate change.

Scientists, policymakers and maybe even voters might have to decide how to improve a multinational network of satellites and monitoring systems on the ground and in the sea that measure how fast greenhouse gases are warming the planet and where they come from.

Think of it as a high-tech selfie of the globe, a composite image that may be within a decade of telling us how to spot and minimize the more dangerous changes. The mixture of images will create a picture of Earth as seen from a proliferation of satellites, observatories, airplanes and other measuring devices. Many of these mechanisms are overseen by U.N. agencies that deal with weather and climate change. Others are operated by various governments. Most help feed climate data to the global community of researchers.

Perfecting the network may take longer than 10 years, and it will easily require a multibillion-dollar debate. Reports from the U.N.’s Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and the European Space Agency are already in, calling for major investments in big ticket items. The most expensive are satellites, which have been documenting changes to the climate since the 1970s. One urgent problem is that some of them are wearing out and may not be replaced.

Elisabeth Moyer, who teaches atmospheric studies at the University of Chicago, sees politics as the major obstacle. “People have become complacent. The feeling is that we’re so technologically advanced, we can know everything and see everything, but for someone like me, whose entire scientific career has come in this window when we had all the capabilities, we’re faced with going forward without anything. That’s really frightening.”

Moyer, who is not a co-author of the study, calls it a “very slowly unfolding horror story.”

“We’re getting to the point where many of these things were launched in the early 2000s and now are wearing out,” she added. “It can take a decade from planning to launch, and the pipeline for this doesn’t seem to be there at all.”

She noted that Belgium may help fill some gaps in the observation system in 2020 by launching what is called a limb sounding satellite, a low Earth orbiter that can look through the atmosphere and promises to track winds, clouds and aerosols. That could help fill major gaps in climate knowledge.

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