Just a few days ago, on Jan. 9 2023, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) returned to earth. This satellite, which was launched in 1984, was meant to orbit the planet for just two years and measure how Earth “absorbed and radiated energy from the Sun,” while making measurements of “stratospheric ozone, water vapor, nitrogen dioxide, and aerosols.” But, by some stroke of luck, the satellite remained in orbit for more than 10 times its intended lifespan.
This satellite, whether you knew it or not, has played a massive role in your life. One experiment on the satellite, the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment II (SAGE II), helped scientists prove that the Earth’s ozone layer was shrinking as a result of human activity, according to NASA. The data from SAGE II shaped the Montreal Protocol, an international convention that led to the first significant reduction in the emission of ozone depleting substances. Without the ERBS, we may never have been able to achieve that crucial emissions reduction; ERBS helped save the planet from about 2.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. And, also of great significance, the ERBS’s success helped spark the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) suite of satellite instruments. CERES collects satellite-based observations of ERB and clouds, and informs climate policy today.
The surprisingly delayed retirement of ERBS offers an opportunity to reflect on climate policy of the past. Policy change has definitely accelerated since the launch of ERBS, but have we done enough? ERBS’s findings helped us save the ozone, and without it we may have been dust on an uninhabitable planet. But we appear to be ungrateful for the time that ERBS bought us. Today, we stall on policy change for the sake of profit, politics and pride. We have the data we need from CERES (and countless other satellites), ERBS’s successor, yet in some sort of cosmic joke lawmakers often delay necessary change.
The urgency that ERBS’s findings instilled in policymakers in the 1980s, when contrasted with the willful obstinacy of many of today’s policymakers, is more than frustrating. Our planet is dying, we know we’re causing it and we will continue to do so despite every warning sign imaginable.
Just a few days after ERBS’s postponed terrestrial re-entry, I’m frustrated at how little seems to be happening. This critically important satellite which saved the world from death by ozone depletion is now received by a population that refuses to heed the call of its own planet.
We still have time to save the world, and every little bit of warming we can prevent will matter. The ERBS has returned, and it did its job: it helped scientists confirm that the ozone layer was disappearing, sparking the policy change we needed. Now that the satellite has returned to us, we need to remember why we put it there in the first place. Through scientific knowledge of our planet, we can save it. Through careful observation, there is a path to environmental salvation. We just have to take that path, just like we did with the Montreal Protocol that ERBS inspired.