Thomas Karl says humans changing atmosphere in ways we’ve never seen

Dr. Karl directs the world’s largest archive of climate data. He told EarthSky that the large-scale burning of fossil fuels by humans amounts to treating our planet like a giant laboratory.

Thomas Karl: Right now, the Earth is like the only laboratory we have. And we’re experimenting in this laboratory in ways in which we’re not 100 percent certain as to the ramifications.

Climate researcher Thomas Karl is the director of the National Climatic Data Center, the world’s largest archive of climate data. Karl told EarthSky that the large-scale burning of fossil fuels by humans amounts to treating our planet like a giant laboratory. Fossil fuels produce C02, which is known to be warming Earth’s atmosphere – but scientists aren’t sure how quickly.

Thomas Karl: There’s likely to be some surprises in the future. So it’s extremely important then, to monitor as an early warning system, and how we do this is we have an array of satellites, we have an array of surface-based observations from radar, to ships, buoys in the ocean, and even look at past records by drilling into ice cores.

Karl said the situation is complex, and that the data is showing changes to Earth’s climate are real. He added that these changes are already impacting people’s everyday lives.

Thomas Karl: We’ve seen an increase in temperatures. We’ve seen more heavy and extreme precipitation events. We’ve seen a reduction in the Arctic sea ice.

Karl said that, to better monitor global warming, the U.S. plans to launch a ‘next-generation’ of polar orbiting satellites. Starting in 2009, the country will replace some satellites that have been in orbit for close to fifty years. The next generation of polar-orbiting satellites is needed, said Karl.

Thomas Karl: Right now, NOAA, along with the Department of Defense and NASA, is embarking on an important mission of launching a next-generation of polar-orbiting satellites. We’ve had fifteen satellites, and these have been up in the atmosphere since 1960. The first satellite, TYROS, was launched in 1960. We’re coming up to a 50-year anniversary next year. And with each new satellite, we’ve had small improvements. We’ve been able to try and look at what’s happening on the Earth, trying to stitch together the records from these different satellites. Now, for the first time, we’re going to have a much more comprehensive satellite up there, able to measure with more accuracy, higher resolution, measuring more climate variables than ever before. This is important because we want to continue the record we built on, and we recognize that in the next five to seven years, we’ll have to fly new satellites to replace the ones that decay in orbit.

Jorge Salazar