Instrument on NASA satellite said to advance understanding of climate change

AIRS, the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder on NASA's Aqua satellite, gathers infrared energy emitted from Earth's surface and atmosphere globally, every day

A tool situated on one of NASA's satellites has been helping forecasters since 2002, but it's recently said to help researchers calculate the role climate change plays in extreme weather events.

The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) gathers infrared energy on Earth. It provides 3D measurements of temperature and water vapor through the atmospheric column and a host of trace gases and surface and cloud properties.

NASA says that recently AIRS helped predict the blizzard that dropped 4 feet of snow in North Dakota, a drought-fueled wildfire in New Mexico and severe storms that produced tornadoes in Kentucky on April 13. And now, researchers are using AIRS to see how climate change played a role.

"Understanding what happened in the first couple of decades of the 21st century is critical to understanding climate change, and there's no better record than AIRS to study that," said Joao Teixeira, AIRS science team leader at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "I see us as guardians of this precious dataset that will be our legacy for future generations."

AIRS data can be used to track harmful air pollutants that have significant impacts on climate change, like carbon dioxide, methane and ozone. 

AIRS launched aboard NASA's Aqua satellite in May 2002. Along with the microwave instrument, the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit, AMSU-A, represents the most advanced atmospheric sounding system ever deployed in space.

NASA says that both AIRS and AMSU-A observe the global water and energy cycles, climate variation and trends, and the climate system's response to increased greenhouse gases.

When launched, the mission team hoped to collect data for at least 15 years.

"We put an unimaginable amount of effort into making an instrument that wouldn't fail in orbit. It was the philosophy of how we built these instruments on the Aqua satellite," Pagano said.

But now, with the multitude of data it provides, researchers continually find more uses for it.

AIRS was recently able to help collect data to detect atmospheric waves from the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano

NASA says that it's also helped quantify a link between humidity and flu outbreaks.

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