Of all the worlds studied by JPL, the quest to understand how Earth is changing touches us most directly. Although we have made major strides in understanding our home planet, there is much more to learn. How high and how quickly will the seas rise? How available will fresh water be in the future? How are carbon storage and biodiversity changing? How can we better prepare for extreme events like earthquakes and volcanoes? Such questions, and others, will continue to drive JPL to innovate new ways to observe how Earth responds to both natural and human-caused changes, and provide actionable results for research, education, and decision- making.

JPL focuses on the interconnected components of the Earth — the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and cryosphere — and how these complex, dynamic systems work together to produce an integrated whole. Studying how Earth is changing enables us to better understand, predict and respond to natural hazards, weather, climate, and freshwater needs. To address these challenges, JPL pioneers space-based observations enabled by unique, innovative technologies in order to understand Earth as a system. Our JPL Earth science community prides itself on being tenacious problem-solvers, wholistic thinkers, and catalysts for broad community collaboration.

Focus Areas

The Earth Science and Technology Directorate​ has identified the following strategic science focus areas to aid NASA’s efforts to achieve its vision and mission.

Understanding Our Water Cycle and Monitoring Freshwater Availability

The water cycle is the path that all water follows as it moves around Earth in different states. Liquid water is found in oceans, rivers, lakes—and even underground. Solid ice is found in glaciers, snow, and on Greenland and Antarctica. Water vapor—a gas—is found in Earth’s atmosphere.

Fresh water is vital to communities, agriculture, and the health of ecosystems throughout the planet. As water supplies become stressed due to pollution, growing population, and climate change, its availability poses an increasingly significant management challenge. To predict changes in availability, we must monitor and understand how and where Earth’s water is located, how these quantities change over time and how it is exchanged between the atmosphere, rivers, oceans, ice, plants, and the ground. This data informs our ability to make sound management decisions. JPL is bringing significant satellite and instrument capabilities to meet this challenge, as well as developing the methods to combine observations and models to examine and quantify the role and impacts of water across the Earth system.

Water Cycle

JPL is making a number of contributions to NASA’s goal of measuring and understanding the global water cycle and providing information for better water management.


Understanding the entirety of the water cycle involves studying the solid, liquid and gaseous forms on Earth, which cannot be measured using a single technology or instrument. To meet this challenge, JPL/NASA has pioneered a suite of approaches that enable the scientific community to track and deepen their understanding of the way water moves across the planet.

JPL/NASA has the technology to understand water in all its forms: CloudSat uses radar technology to measure cloud liquid and ice in the atmosphere. The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite is a first-of-its-kind with its ability to measure soil moisture and determine whether soils like artic permafrost are frozen or thawed. The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) can measure profiles of atmospheric water vapor The Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment- Follow On (GRACE-FO) mission uses gravity sensing to monitor changes in underground water storage. The Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS), provides the most detailed temperature images of Earth’s surface ever acquired from space. And the Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) can produce fine-scale measurements of snow depth and brightness to advance our understanding of mountain snowpack. All of these missions combined allow scientists to investigate the many facets of the water cycle.

Strategic Goals

  • Develop advanced and complementary measurements of clouds and precipitation

  • Develop technologies to measure the amount of water in mountain snowpack

  • Continue measurements of the movement of water around the planet

Measuring Sea Level Rise and Quantifying Contributing Ocean and other Earth System Processes

One of the more profound illustrations of Earth’s changing climate is the increase in global sea level. With societal impacts already evident, it is critical to understand the causes in order to sharpen future projections. JPL is leading the way in advancing this understanding by developing and operating two crucial satellite measurement systems—altimetry and gravity measurements. In addition, JPL provides scientific expertise and advanced modeling capabilities that help determine and quantify the various contributions to sea level rise, including from ice sheets, glaciers, ocean warming, as well as the influences from the solid earth and water cycle variations.

Sea Level Rise

A number of factors influence the rate of sea level rise and its regional variations. JPL provides the altimetry measurements central to monitoring sea level rise and contributes measurement technology and scientific expertise that help determine and quantify the various contributions to sea level rise, melting glaciers and ice sheets, and thermal expansion.


Since 1978, when it launched the world’s first satellite-based ocean altimetry radar, JPL has been pioneering the technologies that allow scientists to monitor and understand sea-level rise.

Through decades-long collaboration with the French space agency (CNES), JPL/NASA has combined unique antenna designs, innovative power supplies, and precision navigation tools to create the radar systems. These instruments have given scientists the ability to measure global trends in sea-level change with incredible precision.

Over the last two decades, JPL/NASA has also been a pioneer of the measurement of Earth’s mass changes. The twin satellites of the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment- Follow On (GRACE-FO) mission, launched in partnership with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), circle the globe 15 times a day, sensing even the smallest variations in Earth’s gravitational pull. The GRACE missions allow researchers to detect subtle regional changes in Earth’s gravitational field that can determine shifts in water mass in a particular region. With this powerful technology, the contributions of ice melt and sea-level rise can be calculated.

JPL/NASA’s next major contribution to understanding this complex cycle will launch in 2022, when the unique instruments aboard the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission will begin measuring the level of the world’s lakes, reservoirs, wetlands, and rivers.

Strategic Goals

  • Advance the fidelity of our measurements of global sea level variations

  • Enhance our capabilities to measure and distinguish ocean warming versus mass contributions to sea level rise

  • Improve our measurements and understanding of ice sheets, a key contributor to sea level rise

Monitoring the Solid Earth to Understand and Respond to Natural Hazards

Government agencies charged with anticipating, mitigating, assessing, and responding to hazards rely on JPL’s spaceborne and airborne instruments and scientific data processing capabilities for a fleet of international synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. These data are changing how the nation and the world monitor infrastructure and prepare for and react to both natural and human-caused hazards. JPL is providing leadership in the use of SAR data for natural hazards response but also combining it with ground observations, other satellite assets, and models to advance our understanding of the solid earth and its interactions with the water cycle, cryosphere, and atmosphere.

Natural Hazards

There is a need for near-constant monitoring of the Earth’s surface to optimally prepare and respond to the variety of natural hazards affecting our planet and livelihood.


To understand surface changes, often resulting from natural disasters, JPL/NASA has developed the space-born Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, also known as InSAR. InSAR is a powerful example of NASA’s ability to understand changes in Earth’s geometric shape. By taking and comparing two images from the same place at different times, the data it collects can reveal surface deformation changes of less than a centimeter, including subsidence, earthquakes and even coastal flooding.

JPL/NASA has also developed Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis, also known as the ARIA system. ARIA produces data products of unprecedented detail to help organizations all over the world respond to earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, landslides, fires, and other natural disasters.

In 2022, JPL/NASA will deepen its efforts to monitor the hardest places to reach on earth. In collaboration with India’s space agency, JPL will build and launch the NASA-ISRO SAR Mission (NISAR) mission, which will allow scientists to measure all types of terrain, including slopes, heavily vegetated areas, ecosystem disturbances and ice sheet collapse. NISAR will produce radar imaging that spans most of the world in extremely high resolution.

Other relevant missions include: Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS), Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment- Follow On (GRACE FO), Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER)

Strategic Goals

  • Provide more frequent and detailed observations of surface movements associated with earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, subsidence, etc. to understand and improve natural disaster response.

  • Improve our ability to monitor and understand the influence of water and its movements on the evolution of the Earth’s surface

Understanding Our Carbon Cycle and Changing Ecosystems

Carbon is everywhere. It is the fourth most common element in the universe, and the second most abundant by mass in your own body. It is the common element observed in all known life forms. It can combine with other elements such as hydrogen and oxygen to create compounds that greatly affect the quality of life on Earth. When combined with hydrogen, it can create fossil fuels. When combined with oxygen, it can create carbon dioxide. Carbon compounds move between the air, land, soil, and ocean continuously in a process that is called the carbon cycle. Understanding the carbon cycle is critical to managing its impact on society. For example, one of the principal causes of climate change is an increase of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by human behavior, such as burning fossil fuels as the conversion of geological carbon into the atmospheric carbon. Climate change itself has a natural cycle over time, but the current rate of climate change is faster than at any time in the last 800,000 years, and is due to human behavior. Understanding the changes in the carbon cycle provides the critical insight into current and future climate change.

JPL is making many contributions to space missions to meet this objective, including developing methods to use and combine observations across many platforms (spaceborne, airborne, and ground-based) with state-of-the-art models to quantify the exchanges of carbon between land, ocean, and atmosphere, and to disentangle natural changes from those caused by humans.

Carbon Cycle

JPL is helping to lead NASA’s effort to design a system of satellites and ground sensors to measure the most critical components of the global carbon cycle.


JPL/NASA’s measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with one-part-per-million accuracy has revolutionized our understanding of the carbon cycle. For instance, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3) mission aboard the International Space Station enables scientists to quantify and differentiate the amount of carbon being absorbed by different plants and ecosystem types around the world. OCO-3 is the first space-based instrument to measure Solar-Induced Fluorescence—an indicator of photosynthesis efficiency—in high definition from dawn to dusk. JPL/NASA is also developing capabilities to image and detect methane from high-emitting sources.

And in 2022 NISAR will launch, allowing scientists to calculate changes in above-ground biomass over time.

Learn more about some of the relevant missions: Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS), Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), Multi-angle ImagingSpectroRadiometer (MISR), Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS)

Strategic Goals

  • Provide more frequent and more detailed surface biology and ecosystem observations

  • Design feasible and more comprehensive observing systems of the global carbon cycle

  • Develop capabilities to better monitor our coastal and inland water systems

Enabling Improvements in Weather and Air Quality Forecasts

Our day-to-day lives and ability to thrive are influenced strongly by variations in weather and air quality. More accurate and timely predictions of extreme weather and air quality events, as well as knowing when to expect more normal weather conditions, are essential for sound decision making— whether for individual daily concerns or for larger civil, commercial, and military planning. JPL is at the forefront of technology and science advances, to increase our understanding of weather and air quality and enable better monitoring and prediction capabilities. This includes improving our understanding of atmospheric interactions across the Earth system that result in extreme weather and air quality events that lead to impacts on human and ecosystem health.

Weather and Air Quality


Measuring specific trace gases in the atmosphere requires technology that can distinguish the faintest of signals. JPL/NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions Spectrometer (TES) can do just that. As the first satellite instrument to measure carbon monoxide, ozone, water vapor, and methane concentrations simultaneously throughout Earth’s lower atmosphere, the TES technology is unparalleled. Due to the high resolution of the data it produces, TES has allowed scientists to understand the amounts and locations of atmospheric gases.

JPL/NASA has also created unique technologies to characterize the size, composition, and quantity of particulate matter, including the Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) mission launching in 2022.

These atmospheric measurement instruments can work lockstep with constellations of miniature weather satellites to power the next decade’s investigation of the interplay between weather and air quality. JPL/NASA’s technology will allow scientists to measure ice and water movement through cloud layers and are producible at a tenth of the cost of traditional weather satellites. These instruments are not only affordable but can fly in constellations to help predict the formation and behavior of severe weather patterns, helping the world prepare for impending natural disasters.

Other relevant missions include: Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), CloudSat, Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS), Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS)

Strategic Goals

  • Improve our ability to measure and predict extreme precipitation

  • Contribute new approaches for measuring atmospheric winds and ocean currents

  • Develop advanced technologies and remote sensing approaches to provide better weather and air quality information closer to the Earth’s surface

Aligning our Research and Missions with the Decadal Survey

Thriving on Our Changing Planet
The National Academies 2017–2027 Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space recommends a rich and complex set of Earth science and application measurements to be developed in the coming decade that address the challenges and opportunities associated with the five strategic themes highlighted above.

The National Academies 2017–2027 Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space recommends a rich and complex set of Earth science and application measurements to be developed in the coming decade that address the challenges and opportunities associated with the five strategic themes highlighted above.

JPL is well positioned to contribute to many of these Decadal Survey priorities. These contributions are enabled through advancing sensor technologies; formulating nimble and capable constellations of satellites; miniaturizing components to facilitate the use of small satellites; developing commercial and international partnerships; meeting big data challenges presented by these satellite missions; developing and applying the latest information technologies, including high performance computing, in advancing Earth system models for better forecasting of weather and climate changes.

JPL has also developed an information processing portal to serve information to decision support agencies, such as FEMA and water management agencies which will provide important benefits to society. These benefits are for food security, weather forecasting, and earthquake and fire hazard assessment.

For more information, please see the key missions enabled by JPL’s unique technologies.