We hear about climate change and its consequences almost daily, from wildfires in Greenland to melting ice in Antarctica to Europeans sweating in record-high summer temperatures. These stories, combined with dire warnings about rising sea levels and record levels of greenhouse gases, can elicit strong urges to “do something.” One of the first jobs is to understand the problem, and thankfully, today’s photonic sensing researchers have risen to the challenge of quantifying global climate and environmental change. Today’s most sophisticated optical instruments examine the condition of humanity’s home planet, from wind to ice, treetops to coral reefs.
To assess the health of our living planet, optical scientists are taking global measurements of ice, water, gases, and the biosphere. There are three broad categories of photonic sensing of the Earth’s environment. Laser ranging is particularly effective at determining how solids, such as ice sheets, change elevation. Hyperspectral imaging collects full spectral data from each image pixel, revealing patterns of healthy and diseased life forms in their environments. Furthermore, because of advancements in portability, laser spectroscopy can fill in some critical gaps in our understanding of the distribution of problematic atmospheric gases. Many technologies are useful for both daily weathers sensing for meteorological models and tracking and assessing long-term climate trends.
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