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Community Letter to NASA and NOAA Regarding Concerns Over NPOESS Preparatory Project VIIRS Sensor

Status Report From: University of California Santa Barbara
Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2007

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October 2, 2007

Dear Dr. Griffin and Admiral Lautenbacher,

We are ocean biologists and biogeochemists who use NASA satellite data to study the ocean's biosphere, its changes in time and how it is affected by and responds to humankind's activities. Our science requires satellite "ocean color" sensors that can quantify trends in global ocean biological and biogeochemical properties on intraseasonal to decadal time scales. Ocean color data are critical to address strategic needs of other federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Navy. High quality ocean color observations have applications such as detecting and monitoring changes in water quality, tracking harmful algal blooms, assessing underwater visibility for divers, and a variety of other applications related to ocean ecosystems, carbon and elemental cycling, coastal habitats, and coastal hazards. For the past decade, we have been privileged to use the internationally recognized highest quality NASA data sets from SeaWiFS and MODIS on Aqua. These NASA data sets have literally revolutionized our field and greatly enhanced our abilities to inform policymakers and the public of the changes to our oceans.

We have become increasingly concerned that VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imager/Radiometer Suite), the ocean color sensor on the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) mission, will be incapable of providing imagery for climate science applications. VIIRS on NPP was supposed to be the next ocean color mission to follow SeaWiFS and MODIS on Aqua and extend key biological and biogeochemical oceanographic observations. Importantly, this requirement of continuing the EOS-level climate science observations across all Earth Science disciplines was built into the recommendations of the NRC's Decadal Survey committee.

Recent summaries of VIIRS performance from the IPO and NASA, presented at the NPP Science Team Meeting in August 2007, clearly show that the present configuration of the VIIRS sensor will not come close to meeting the VIIRS design specifications and required spectral radiometric accuracies - which are minimum standards for ocean color sensor performance for climate science applications. The so-called "cherry-picked" configuration of the VIIRS's filter array will just meet these standards but only if the rest of pre-flight testing is completely error free (which is unrealistic as VIIRS just entered its testing phase). Hence, we have little confidence that VIIRS on NPP will ever provide well- calibrated ocean color imagery. It may be able to provide qualitative imagery for descriptive purposes (detecting turbid water plumes, etc.); but not high quality ocean color imagery required for quantifying the variability and impacts of natural and human-induced changes of our oceans.

We face the ominous likelihood that in the near future there will be a disruption in climate quality ocean color data as both MODIS Aqua and SeaWiFS are beyond their designed mission lifetimes. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the first round of Earth Science Decadal Survey plans for EOS level climate sensors beyond VIIRS on NPP (and then VIIRS on NPOESS). The Decadal Survey recommends a 2013-2016 launch date for the Aerosol/Cloud/Ecosystems (ACE) mission - a mission that if structured properly could significantly contribute to our community. Our understanding, however, is that even a 2016 launch for ACE is optimistic and would require funding for mission planning to begin no later than 2009. As it looks now, both MODIS-Aqua and SeaWiFS sensors are likely to be dead long before the ACE mission's launch.

In contrast to other international partnerships, such as with altimetry, we are not getting much help with global ocean color measurements from our international partners. Unfortunately, present ocean color missions are limited at best. For example, the European Space Agency's (ESA) MERIS mission has a narrow swath (only a third of SeaWiFS's) and has several image quality issues (radiometric inconsistencies, scan line dependence in derived products, no vicarious calibration procedure in place, etc.). We are not able to routinely receive global MERIS Level 1 data nor do we have detailed pre-flight characterization data, so there is no existing way for us to work with ESA to fix these problems. Nearly all other international ocean color missions in space today lack global coverage and are experimental imagers with narrow swaths and poorly characterized imaging capabilities. Again, data access remains difficult and we have little ability to understand their capabilities. Future international missions are likewise problematic, as launch dates are far into the future, and we anticipate the same problems we have today with current international sensors (limited access to data, poor sensor characterization, etc.).

We see three choices that the Space and Earth science agencies can make; each has serious and long-term consequences for our scientific discipline, the management of ocean resources, and society's ability to understand climate change and mitigate human impacts on ocean habitats and ecosystems. These are:

  1. Aggressively pursue and document improvements to the VIIRS sensor on NPP that enable it to meet the specifications required for climate capable ocean color observatories,
  2. Implement a stand-alone, global ocean color mission, or
  3. Continue with plans of flying NPP, but in full recognition of its consequences.

1. An aggressive rehabilitation of VIIRS on NPP is theoretically possible, and scientists and engineers at NASA GSFC have long been considering it. As you likely know, there are many issues (institutional, contractual, fiscal, schedule, interagency agendas, etc.) that will make the successful rehabilitation of VIIRS extremely difficult. This strategy will require a much improved and transparent pre-launch testing and on-orbit calibration/validation program (including on-orbit maneuvers for lunar calibrations) than is in place today for the NPP program. Even if this plan were to be pursued, there is no certainty that it will work in the end. For example, the MODIS sensor on the Terra platform has yet to provide stable ocean color data products despite many person years of effort. MODIS on Terra has shown substantial radiometric signal degradation on orbit (up to 40%). This degradation varies with scan angle and mirror-side and may have resulted from damage done to the mirror coatings in pre-launch testing after its pre-launch characterization. Limitations with the on-orbit calibration system (e.g., solar diffuser door anomaly, inability to track polarization changes) have resulted in temporal variations in calibrated radiances that obfuscate ocean color trends. Seven years after its launch, researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) are still working to produce high quality, ocean color data products from MODIS on Terra.

2. A gap-filling mission in the spirit of SeaWiFS can be implemented and flown. SeaWiFS is a success story of the "better, faster, cheaper" version of NASA. A dedicated, single-instrument ocean mission can be flown easily and cost- effectively. NASA has launched "quick recovery" missions before. The Quick Scatterometer (QuikSCAT) mission was launched to fill the critical data gap created after the NASA Scatterometer (NSCAT) failed. The ocean color science community has learned much over the last decade about what is required for a successful mission. NASA HQ has a requested detailed concept study for this type of mission and this work is being conducted at the Goddard Space Flight Center. This gap-filling sensor could also be placed on a mission of opportunity. This is clearly the lowest risk option for insuring that high-quality ocean color data are available for the next decade of science and applications. 3. The last choice is the situation we find ourselves in today, and arguably the worst-case scenario. Staying the course with NPP will clearly not result in climate quality ocean color data. This decision must be made with the understanding that these data will not be available at the time when efforts to address climate change, coastal hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, fisheries health, ocean acidification and many other issues are accelerating. The bottom line is that essential research quality ocean color data will not be available in the very near future unless immediate and substantive actions are taken. The lack of global ocean color observations at the accuracy and quality at which NASA is currently capable will impact critical climate research conducted in the

U.S. Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry (OCB) program as well as ocean observatory efforts currently coming on-line from the National Science Foundation (OOI) and NOAA (IOOS). In particular, there will be no way to integrate the invaluable in situ regional observations of the ocean observatory nodes with global observations of ocean plants, animals, and overall health and chemistry for better understanding and prediction of Earth System responses to climate variability and change. Without global and high-resolution coastal ocean color data, there will unquestionably be an impact to implementation and delivery of results to support goals of the Climate Change Science Program (e.g. carbon cycle and ecosystem science), the U.S. Ocean Action Plan and recently released Ocean Research Priorities Plan themes, and the Global Earth Observation System of Systems objectives.

We thank you for your attention and consideration of this matter. Please let us know what we can do to help.

Sincerely,

David A. Siegel, Professor of Marine Science and Director of the Institute for Computational Earth System Science, University of California, Santa Barbara and Member of the NASA NPP Science team

James Yoder, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; former Chair of the Carbon Cycle Scientific Steering Group, Current Chair of the International Ocean Color Coordinating Group and former member of ESSAAC

Supporting Signatures:

Mark Abbott, Dean and Professor, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University

Robert Anderson, Doherty Senior Scholar, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University and Fellow of the American Geophysical Union

Kevin R. Arrigo, Associate Professor and Director, Graduate Program in Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University

William M. Balch, Senior Research Scientist, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and Member of the NASA NPP Science team

Richard T. Barber, H.W. Smith Professor Emeritus of Biological Oceanography, Duke University and Fellow of the American Geophysical Union

Michael J. Behrenfeld, Senior Research Professor, Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University and Member of the NASA NPP Science team

Michael Bender, Professor of Geosciences, Princeton University, Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and Member of the National Academy of Sciences

Emmanuel Boss, Associate Professor, School of Marine Science, University of Maine

Ken O. Buesseler, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Douglas G. Capone, Wrigley Professor of Environmental Biology, Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies & Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California

Francisco Chavez, Senior Scientist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences

Carlos E. Del Castillo, Senior Scientist, Applied Physics Laboratory, The Johns Hopkins University

Heidi Dierssen, Assistant Professor, Department of Marine Sciences, University of Connecticut

Tommy D. Dickey, Professor of Marine Science, University of California, Santa Barbara and Fellow of the American Geophysical Union

Scott Doney, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Chair of the U.S. Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry Program and Fellow of the American Geophysical Union

Paul Falkowski, Board of Governors' Professor, Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Department of Geological Sciences, Rutgers University, Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and Member of the National Academy of Sciences

Richard Feely, Supervisory Oceanographer, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and Fellow of the American Geophysical Union

Mick Follows, Principal Research Scientist, Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Steven D. Gaines, Professor of Marine Ecology and Director of the Marine Sciences Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara

Joaquim I. Goes, Senior Research Scientist, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Howard R. Gordon, Distinguished Professor, Department of Physics, University of Miami and 2004 Jerlov Award Recipient

David Glover, Research Specialist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Gordon Hamilton, Associate Professor, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, Orono

Kenneth S. Johnson, Senior Scientist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Ralph Keeling, Professor, Scripps Institution Oceanography, University of California, San Diego

Joan Kleypas, Scientist II, National Center for Atmospheric Research

Raphael Kudela, Associate Professor or Marine Sciences and Director of the IGPP Center for Remote Sensing, University of California, Santa Cruz

Ricardo Letelier, Professor, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University

Marlon Lewis, Professor of Oceanography, Dalhousie University

Steven E. Lohrenz, Professor and Chair of the Marine Science Department, University of Southern Mississippi

Natalie Mahowald, Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University

Stephane Maritorena, Associate Researcher, Institute for Computational Earth System Science, University of California, Santa Barbara and Member of the NASA NPP Science team

John Marra, Professor and Director, Aquatic Research And Environmental Assessment Center, CUNY, Brooklyn College

Patricia Matrai, Senior Research Scientist, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Dennis J. McGillicuddy, Jr., Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Wade R. McGillis, Doherty Scientist and Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Earth and Environmental Engineering, Columbia University

Galen A. McKinley, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Madison

William L. Miller, Director, University of Georgia Marine Institute Sapelo Island and Professor, Department of Marine Science, University of Georgia

B. Greg Mitchell, Research Professor, Scripps Institution Oceanography, University of California, San Diego

J. Ru Morrison, Assistant Research Professor, Ocean Process Analysis Lab, University of New Hampshire

Frank Muller-Karger, Professor and Dean, School for Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

Raymond G. Najjar, Associate Professor, Departments of Meteorology and Geosciences, The Pennsylvania State University

Norman B. Nelson, Associate Researcher, Institute for Computational Earth System Science, University of California, Santa Barbara and Member of the NASA NPP Science team

Mary Jane Perry, Professor of Marine Sciences, Ira C. Darling Marine Center, University of Maine

Collin S. Roesler, Associate Research Professor, School of Marine Science, University of Maine

John Ryan, Oceanographer, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Brandon S. Sackmann, Postdoctoral Fellow, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Jorge Sarmiento, Professor, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Princeton University and Fellow of the American Geophysical Union

Oscar Schofield, Professor, Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University

Raymond C. Smith, Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara and 2002 Jerlov Award Recipient

Heidi Sosik, Associate Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Dariusz Stramski, Professor, Scripps Institution Oceanography, University of California, San Diego

Ajit Subramaniam, Doherty Associate Research Scientist, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

Andrew Thomas, Professor, School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine

J. Ronald Zaneveld, Senior Oceanographer, WET Labs, Inc., Professor Emeritus, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University and 2006 Jerlov Award Recipient

Stephan I. Zeeman, Professor of Biology, University of New England

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