Over a period of six orbits on 3 February 2012, the Suomi NPP satellite gathered the data to make this view of Earth showing North Africa and southwestern Europe. Credit: Image by Norman Kuring, NASA GSFC, using data from the VIIRS instrument aboard Suomi NPP.

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available – once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes known – a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”
- Sir Fred Hoyle, astronomer

Venturing out into space gave us the chance not only to look out, but also to look back – back at Earth, the only home we’ve ever known. In the process, we have gained a unique perspective of our place within the universe and also of the fragility and interconnectedness of our planet. NASA’s decades of Earth-watching have made the agency an expert on our environment: the water and vast oceans, ice and snow, land air and the planet’s living ecosystems.

Today, NASA monitors Earth's vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. While it takes a lot of effort to launch satellites into space, they are ideally suited to observing our climate because they orbit the entire planet many times a day. The speed of spacecraft (typically a few miles per second) means that instruments onboard satellites can quickly observe a wide range of conditions. Modern satellite instruments are able to generate billions of data points per day and the global data records they provide enables us to look at the largest scales.

In addition, an army of NASA scientists and researchers work to analyze the data we collect, interpret the results and develop models and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. They also work to identify the most burning questions about our climate and formulate the next missions and projects that will help answer them. NASA shares the knowledge it gains with the rest of the world. It works with institutions in the U.S. and around the world that help understand and protect our home planet, providing them with robust science information that can be used to make informed decisions.

This page gives a snapshot of some of the climate scientists working at NASA and the work that they do. It is by no means a complete catalogue, but rather intended to give a sense of the type of work that is being done and some of the people that do it. For more details of NASA’s missions, visit our Missions page.

 

 

Gavin Schimdt

Gavin Schmidt

Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Dr. Schmidt develops large-scale numerical simulations to study climate change. Climate models encapsulate the processes that underlie how our global climate works. They use computer code to turn global processes like the evaporation of seawater and the formation of clouds into physical equations. Schmidt uses these models to gain insights into how our climate responds to both natural changes (like variations in the Sun’s output or to large volcanic eruptions) and human-caused changes (like greenhouse-gas increases from burning fossil fuels, deforestation and air pollution). He evaluates the models using targets based on past climate data in order to build credibility for predictions about climate change in the future.

What got you interested in climate science?   

I started off as a mathematician. As I started to deal with more realistic problems involving the ocean and then paleoclimate (Earth’s ancient climate), I realized that people are really interested in how the world works and have since tried to push my research into areas that are the most interesting. That has led me to focus on realistic simulations of near-current climate conditions.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve done as a researcher?  

Collecting sea-ice and water samples along the Adelie coast in Antarctica. (Literally the coolest!)

What’s one thing you wish people better understood about Earth?  

That it’s complicated, but not so complicated that we don’t know anything!

What motivates you to continue your research?   

Every time we think we understand some effect theoretically and then it turns out to be a good representation of what actually happens in the real world, it blows me away.

What’s a hobby or talent of yours that we don’t know about?  

I juggle.

Complete this sentence: At heart, I'm just a frustrated... kid with a Lego set.

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Tom Painter

Thomas Painter

Snow Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Dr. Painter studies snow – or, more specifically, how small particles of dust and dirt in snow change the way it melts. During his Ph.D., he got sucked into having to understand the impacts of these particles on snowmelt after a skiing trip with his Dad near Aspen, Colorado, when they noticed that dirty snow melted faster than clean or freshly-cleared snow. Painter’s Dad kept asking him where, when, why and how.

The reason dirty snow melts faster than clean snow is because it absorbs more sunlight. Back in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin had found that snow covered with a dark cloth melted faster than snow covered by lighter cloths. But the issue is not buried in the past; it is intimately linked with how we humans are changing our environment.

As climate change causes certain regions of the world to dry out, as pollution releases more particles into the atmosphere and as people increasingly disturb desert regions and land surfaces, snow is getting dirtier. Why does this matter? Because by dirtying snow, we are ultimately speeding up seasonal patterns of snowmelt and shifting the timing of water runoff associated with them that feeds rivers, aqueducts and irrigation channels. This human-caused shift can have big impacts on water availability for communities relying on that runoff downstream. It can also accelerate glacier melt and sea-level rise.

Airborne snow observatory
The Airborne Snow Observatory flying over California mountain snowpack.
Painter is the Principal Investigator of NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, a collaborative project with the California Department of Water Resources, which probes snowpack from thousands of feet up in the air. He uses imaging equipment onboard an airplane to measure the depth of California’s mountain snowpack and its absorption of sunlight (which controls how fast snow melts) across entire mountain basins. His team is using this information to build the most accurate maps of just how much water the mountains hold in their snowpack. The ultimate goal is to help improve the data that water managers and scientists rely on to plan for water availability for over a billion people who rely on snow and glacier melt worldwide.

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Carmen Boening

Carmen Boening

Climate Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory 

Dr. Boening is a climate scientist and oceanographer. She studies sea level rise around the world using satellite data and by looking at the water cycle and regional relationships between ocean and climate to understand what’s happening in specific places. In 2012, Boening and colleagues found a recent La-Nina weather pattern was so powerful that it actually caused sea level worldwide to fall. As a scientist on NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, she makes sense of the difference between short-term, natural shifts in rainfall and the oceans that affect sea level and long-term, steady sea level rise due to climate change.

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Peter Griffith

Peter Griffith

Director, Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Office, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

By burning coal and oil, people are adding old carbon to the atmosphere faster than plants and the oceans can take it out. The extra carbon in the atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping heat and making the planet warmer, with a whole host of knock-on effects. Dr. Peter Griffith is a carbon-cycle expert looking at where carbon is produced and stored on our planet and what this means for future climate change.

Griffith is also involved in the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a major NASA field campaign to assess the vulnerability and resilience of ecosystems in the Arctic and Boreal regions of North America. Climate change in these areas is unfolding faster than anywhere else on Earth. Impacts we’re already seeing include diminished Arctic sea-ice cover, thawing of permafrost soils, decomposition of long-term frozen organic matter and widespread changes to lakes, rivers, coastlines and ecosystems. Such effects are spilling over to the rest of the world.

What do you do?  

I put together teams of scientists, engineers and programmers who help make NASA’s science mission happen. There’s an old joke about how “a scientist is someone who learns more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing” – but as a manager of science, I feel like I learn less and less about more and more until I know something about everything. It’s really fabulous, because there’s always something new to learn.

What got you interested in climate science?   

I grew up on a lake in central Florida, and I’ve been snorkeling and catching alligators and frogs and snakes since I was six years old. I also used to watch the Apollo missions launch from that lake. I figured the next best thing to being an astronaut was being an ocean explorer, so I started studying marine biology in college. My first job was as a scuba diver for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. They sent me around the Caribbean making measurements – it was really awesome. Since then, ending up at NASA was a series of fortunate coincidences.  

What do you wish people better understood about Earth?  
I wish more people understood that we’re worried about climate change because we’re worried about people, not just about Earth. For example, what’s happening in the Arctic is not staying in the Arctic – warming in the region is causing forest fires and driving permafrost to thaw, releasing biomass that’s been locked up in tree trunks or permafrost into the atmosphere, which amplifies the warming effect that’s already happening. It’s impacting people who live there and people around the world. I think that point is lost in the political paralysis keeping the country and the world from addressing climate change.

Also, scientists love to talk about the next unknown thing we get to research, so I think the general public has a misperception that we don’t understand what’s going on. I wish people understood that scientists understand very well that the climate is changing because of human activity, and that the range of possible consequences span from serious to catastrophic. It’s the uncertainty between serious and catastrophic impacts that concerns me the most.

Whale skull
Whale skull on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in Barrow, Alaska.
Whale skull on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in Barrow, Alaska.

What motivates you to continue your research?  

Sometimes people ask if I get depressed being involved with studying climate change. I don’t, because it’s tremendously rewarding to be involved in understanding the problem and pointing the way to solutions.

What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?  

Realistically, I would be scuba diving. I’m still a volunteer scuba diver with the National Aquarium. Unrealistically-speaking, I would play keyboards in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

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Graeme Stephens

Graeme Stephens

Director, Center for Climate Sciences and Cloud Expert, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Co-Chair, World Climate Research Programme’s Global Energy and Water Exchanges Project

Dr. Stephens is an expert in Earth’s energy – how it enters the atmosphere, is absorbed by the oceans, land and clouds and how it goes back out into space. Clouds play a vital role in Earth's energy balance, able to both trap and reflect heat and cool or warm Earth's surface depending on their type. Stephens leads NASA’s CloudSat mission, which studies the formation and structure of clouds, and works closely with climate modelers to steadily improve predictions about Earth’s future. He was a lead author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 Fifth Assessment Report.

Cloud painting
This painting by Stephens, "Cumulus Congestus," depicts cumulus clouds that transport energy away from Earth's surface.
Stephens directs NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Climate Sciences, which brings together scientists from a broad range of disciplines and across science projects to understand how all Earth’s systems, including water, the atmosphere, plants and ocean life, contribute and react to climate change. He also co-chairs the Scientific Steering Group of the World Climate Research Programme’s Global Energy and Water Exchanges Project, which focuses on the planet’s energy and water cycles. In his free time, he paints.

This painting by Stephens, "Cumulus Congestus," depicts cumulus clouds that transport energy away from Earth's surface. 

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Dalia Kirschbaum

Dalia Kirschbaum

Water-Cycle Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Dr. Kirschbaum researches rainfall-triggered landslides worldwide. She uses models, based on data from satellites and land, to predict where conditions are ripe for landslides and when rain might trigger them. Kirschbaum serves as the Applications Scientist for NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite, which sees precipitation in three dimensions through the clouds from the ground all the way up to the top of the atmosphere.

What got you interested in climate science?  

I was always fascinated with weather and the impacts of extreme weather around the globe. Weather is really the day-to-day variations in our atmosphere, but understanding the longer-term state of our atmosphere (climate) is fundamental to estimating how these extreme events may change in the future. Will we be getting more rainfall? Less rainfall? Where? How much? These questions are so important to predicting and hopefully preventing some of the impact of these disasters in the future. That’s why I became interested in climate science and applying that knowledge to important environmental issues like landslides.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve done as a researcher?   

I really enjoy traveling to different conferences, workshops and meetings to engage with researchers around the world. The amazing thing about research and this area is that, no matter what country you are from, you talk the same science language and focus on the same big issues relating to your field.

Dalia GPM
Dalia Kirschbaum wears a bunnysuit in front of NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission while in the cleanroom before its launch.
Dalia Kirschbaum wears a bunnysuit in front of NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission while in the cleanroom before its launch.

What’s one thing you wish people better understood about Earth?  

Humans are intrinsically linked to our Earth system and their role on the surface, subsurface and atmosphere will impact how the next generations live on this planet.

What motivates you to continue your research?   

Every year, thousands of people lose their lives from natural disasters like landslides. I am continually motivated by the concept that maybe I can provide even a sliver of extra information that can help emergency responders find people or assets more effectively, alert policymakers to issues in their area, or provide researchers with more data to improve prediction of these hazards and how they relate to our future climate.

How would you like to be remembered?  

I would like to live forever … Just kidding. There’s too much to get done to think about future questions like that.

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Brian Kahn

Brian Kahn

Atmospheric Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

As a kid, Brian Kahn wondered about weather. Why does it rain? Why do clouds look the way they do? Where do thunderstorms come from? Today he is an atmospheric scientist who finds ways to monitor Earth’s clouds, water vapor and temperature using space satellites. Dr. Kahn is part of the teams for the NASA AIRS (Atmospheric Infrared Sounder) and CloudSat satellites, which study weather, clouds and climate from space. Kahn also works with the University of California, Los Angeles’ Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering. His work with satellite data is used to evaluate and improve how weather and climate models predict clouds and storms. In his free time, he likes hiking, reading and cheering for the San Francisco Giants. And communing with saltwater crocodiles in the Australian Outback.

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