10 ways LASP is a leader in Earth and climate science

Earth rises over the surface of the Moon.

The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) is renowned for being the world’s only academic research institute to explore every planet in our solar system (and beyond). But the planet that we study most closely is actually our home planet! About one-third of LASP’s current $1 billion research portfolio relates to studying Earth’s atmosphere and climate from space.

In celebration of our amazing planet, for Earth Week we’re featuring ten ways that LASP contributes to crucial Earth and climate science research:

10. Ozone hole: Using special instruments flying aboard high-altitude balloons, LASP researchers have studied nitric oxide and other compounds in Earth’s stratosphere. This research determines the rate of ozone depletion and helps us better understand the processes that control the hole’s formation. When ozone is depleted, Earth’s surface receives more ultraviolet light, which can cause skin cancer in humans and damage terrestrial and aquatic life.

9. Earth’s energy budget (Part I): LASP instruments are responsible for one of the most fundamental climate data records: the amount of energy Earth’s atmosphere receives from the Sun. This is the “income” for deriving Earth’s energy budget—and the crucial baseline for accurately determining the magnitude human-caused climate change.

8. Daily daisies: For centuries, rare night-shining clouds have formed high in the atmosphere above Earth’s poles each summer. But they’ve recently been spotted more often, and at lower latitudes. LASP scientists are leading contributors to NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) mission to understand why these clouds form and how they relate to climate change. LASP data analysts provide ‘daily daisy’ maps of cloud coverage to the global scientific community.

7. Using Earth to study other planets: Does life exist on other planets? LASP researchers are studying life in Earth’s most extreme environments, such as the flanks of the world’s highest active volcano, to help guide the search for existing and extinct life on Mars and other planets.

lake of the Poás volcano in Costa Rica.
The hydrothermal crater lake of the Poás volcano in Costa Rica. Credit: LASP/CU Boulder

6. TSIS Spectral Irradiance Monitor: LASP’s instrument on the International Space Station measures the Sun’s output of light energy at all wavelengths (from the ultraviolet through the near-infrared). The resulting spectrum was just declared the new international standard for Earth Science research! It’s now being incorporated into powerful models to improve predictions of future climate change.

5. Monsoon in Asia: This summer LASP researchers will participate in an airborne campaign to investigate the monsoon in Asia. Sensors aboard two aircraft will measure aerosols to better understand the climate impacts that occur after severe pollution mixes with one of the northern hemisphere’s largest meteorological patterns.

4. Operating climate missions: LASP’s in-house Mission Operations Center controls many missions and instruments that provide data crucial to understanding climate change and its effects on Earth. This includes NASA’s AIM mission, which studies Earth’s highest clouds, as well as instruments that are measuring the ‘incoming’ and ‘outgoing’ radiation needed to calculate Earth’s energy budget.

3. Nuclear winter: What would happen if a country decided to use their nuclear weapons? Modeling by LASP researchers shows that smoke from burning cities would enter Earth’s stratosphere, block sunlight, and cause temperatures to fall to potential Ice Age conditions—and hopefully serves as a deterrent from this ever happening. This research influenced the recent United Nations agreement to globally ban nuclear weapons.

2. STEVE: What causes mysterious streaks of pale purple and green light to dance across the nighttime sky at latitudes too far from the poles to be auroras? LASP researchers studying this recently discovered atmospheric phenomenon—which was jokingly named STEVE—have learned these lightshows originate at the boundary between two of Earth’s atmospheric layers: the magnetosphere and the ionosphere.

Wavy purple and green illumination in the night sky in Manitoba, Canada
STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement) and the Milky Way at Childs Lake, Manitoba, Canada. The picture is a composite of 11 images stitched together. Image Courtesy Krista Trinder via Flickr

1. Earth’s energy budget (Part II): LASP is leading the Libera mission to measure how much energy, in the form of reflected sunlight and emitted infrared radiation, exits the Earth. This “outgoing” half of Earth’s energy budget, in combination with the “incoming” measurements from our TSIS instrument (see #9), sets the baseline for quantifying changes in the flow of energy through the Earth system, and attributing those changes to their underlying causes.

Written by Terri Cook – Head of LASP’s Office of Communication Management