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Climate Variability & Change

NASA’s Climate Variability and Change Focus Area (CVC) studies global climate and sea level to understand their change on seasonal to decadal timescales. Home to NASA’s research programs in Physical Oceanography, Cryospheric Sciences, and Modeling and Data Assimilation, the CVC Focus Area fosters interdisciplinary science to understand the role of oceans and ice in the Earth system, and supports advanced modeling capabilities to improve our understanding of the physical processes that control the earth system and enable prediction. The CVC section also pioneers new ways to use remote sensing from satellite and aircraft to study the global oceans and ice, and works with agency partners to transition new tools into operational capabilities.

Observations and Modeling

NASA leads a wide range of efforts to collect and interpret data acquired from satellites, aircraft and ground networks, and to integrate these data into numerical models of the Earth’s climate at global and regional scales. The CVC Focus Area supports the development of climate datasets that include sea surface temperature, topography and salinity, and ocean wind speed and direction; sea ice extent and thickness; and land ice topography, motion and mass change. Together, this work has revealed generally consistent trends of increasing global surface temperatures and sea level over the past three decades, with concomitant shrinking of the Arctic sea ice cover, loss of continental ice sheets and glaciers, and changes in global ocean circulation.

Modeling is the principal tool to integrate these observations. The CVC supports modeling at the global to local scale to both constrain the physical processes and understand the overall state of the climate system. The ultimate objective is to enable a predictive capability on seasonal to multi-decadal time scales to understand future climate and sea levels.

Research Questions

  • How is the global ocean circulation varying on interannual, decadal, and multi-decadal time scales?
  • What changes are occurring in the mass and extent of the Earth's ice cover?
  • How can climate variations incite changes in the global ocean circulation?
  • How is global sea level impacted by natural variability and human-induced changes in the Earth system?
  • What is the role of atmospheric composition and clouds in the climate system?
  • How can predictions of climate variability and change be improved?

Research Programs

Physical Oceanography

The Physical Oceanography program supports basic research and analysis initiatives that enable development of NASA’s current and future physical oceanography satellite missions and the interpretation of data derived by these missions. The primary centers of support for the program include the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Earth Science Directorate and the external (non-NASA) scientific community. The central objective of the program is to investigate the ocean’s role in climate variability at different timescales. Since the general ocean circulation plays a critical role in the global air-sea interactions and heat balance, understanding and modeling the state of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system is critical for future climate state projections. While NASA’s focus remains global in nature, it is recognized that many of the current problems that originate from human interactions with the ocean lie within the coastal regions. Research of the coastal ocean has therefore gained enhanced momentum in NASA’s Physical Oceanography program, in the recent years.

Modeling, Analysis and Prediction (MAP)

The MAP program focuses on developing an understanding of the Earth as a complete, dynamic system, including both the fast (low inertia) and slow (high inertia) components of the climate system. It supports both modeling, where the goal is to develop a representative predictive model of the complete Earth system, and data assimilation, where the goal is to combine models and observations to develop best estimates of Earth system current and past states.  The program employs an "observation-driven" methodology, distinguished by rigorous examination and utilization of observations in a global Earth system context, in order to extract from the observations the maximum information about the structure, function and evolution of the Earth system as possible. The program spans the research activities in NASA’s Earth science research program. This approach facilitates the validation of the satellite observations, leads to observationally-based improvements of Earth system model components, and results in models and analyses that accurately represent the Earth system with diagnostic and predictive skill.

Some of the key questions the program addresses include atmospheric composition/climate interactions, the role of clouds in the climate system, atmosphere/ocean/ice/land interactions, analysis/reanalysis of the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface, extreme events (e.g., droughts, hurricanes), climate oscillations (ENSO, MJO, etc.), weather forecasting, subseasonal to interannual climate diagnosis and prediction, and multidecadal climate prediction.

Earth System Modeling

Earth System Modeling at NASA is focused on developing representations of the Earth as a complete, dynamical system spanning atmosphere, land, ocean, and cryospheric components. NASA supports two global Earth System modeling efforts: The Goddard Institute for Space Science (GISS) Model E and the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office (GMAO) GEOS 5 model at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The GISS Model E effort examines the Earth system at longer timescales (decadal to centennial) with a goal of understanding the causes of Earth system change at these time scales and providing multi-decadal predictions of Earth system change. The GMAO GEOS 5 effort centers on combining observations and models to produce analyses and reanalyses of the Earth system, as well as short term (days to interannual) predictions of weather and climate-related phenomena in the Earth system.

Cryosphere Science

NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Program supports basic research on the Earth’s sea and land-based ice to understand its connections to the global system. Recent satellite observations show dramatic changes occurring in the Earth’s polar ice sheets, especially the accelerating loss of the ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica, progressive loss of the Arctic sea ice, and growth of the Antarctic sea ice. Given the tremendous areas that must be studied to characterize this change, space-based and other remote sensing techniques are required.

Overall, the program seeks to understand the implications of changes in polar ice to global climate, sea level, and the polar environment. Supported studies use space-based, aircraft-based, and other remote sensing techniques to understand the factors controlling the retreat and growth of the world’s major sea- and land-based ice sheets and their interactions with the ocean, atmosphere, solid Earth, and solar radiation.

The program sponsors several polar initiatives designed to encourage an integrated approach to cryospheric science problems, such as the Program for Arctic Regional Climate Assessment (PARCA), the Sea-Level Response to Ice Sheet Evolution (SeaRISE) collaboration, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet meeting (WAIS).

Associated Earth Science Division Missions, Instruments, and Data Sets

The table below lists all Earth missions that are relevant to the Climate Variability and Change Focus Area in all phases.

Operatingmissions include missions at the start of the Operations and Sustainment phase of their life-cycle.This phase marks the transition from system development and acquisition activities to primarily systems operations and sustainment activities. Missions under development are missions that are at the Final Design and Fabrication (Phase C) and System Assembly, Integration and Test, and Launch (Phase D) phases of their life-cycle. The primary activities in this category are developmental in nature, including acquisition contract execution. Phase C includes: the completion of final system design and fabrication of test and flight architecture; qualification testing; development of detailed integration plans and procedures; and test of components, assemblies, and subsystems. Phase D entails: system assembly, integration, and test (AI&T); verification/ certification; prelaunch activities; system launch; and completion of on orbit checkout or initial operations. Under study missions include missions that are at the pre-formulation and formulation stages of their life-cycle. Pre-formulation begins the process to define a viable and affordable concept for new NASA programs and projects, via concept studies. This step is followed by the formulation stage, which consists of two sequential phases, the Concept & Technology Development phase and the Preliminary Design & Technology Completion phase. The primary activities in these phases are to develop and define the project requirements and cost/schedule basis, and to design a plan for implementation (including an acquisition strategy, contractor selection, and long-lead procurement). Past missions are missions that have reached the Closeout phase, during which project systems are taken out of service and safely disposed, although scientific and other analyses might still continue under project funding.


PHASE NAME                                  
Satellite Missions SMAP
Suborbital Investigations Operation IceBridge
Satellite Missions ICESat 2
Satellite Missions SWOT
Satellite Missions AQUARIUS
Jason -1


ROSES Solicitations

For solicited program elements relevant to Climate Variability & Change, search for open, closed, and future Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) NASA Research Announcements (NRAs) on the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES) website.

Here is a list of 2015 solicited program elements:

A.9 Ocean Salinity Science Team

A.11 Ocean Surface Topography

A.12 Ocean Vector Winds Science Team

Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs)

Relevant Sites
Topics relevant to Climate Variability & Change are also being pursued through the following:

NASA Center Organizations

Interagency / International Activities

Relevant Links for Physical Oceanography


Program Managers

Eric Lindstrom
Physical Oceanography Program

David Considine
Modeling, Analysis and Prediction Program
Earth System Modeling Program

Thomas P. Wagner
Cryosphere Program