Center Snapshot: Norman Loeb
Image above: Norman Loeb, CERES principal investigator, has been away from his desk at Langley this week to attend the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall conference. Credit: NASA/Katie Lorentz
By: Jim Hodges
When Norman Loeb speaks of climate change, he uses an analogy.
“If you have certain habits, you don’t exercise, you smoke, you eat fatty
foods, there is a good possibility that you will get one of several
diseases,” said Loeb, principal investigator of Clouds and the Earth’s
Radiant Energy System (CERES).
“The climate system is like that. We can’t say for sure everything that will happen and when, but we can say with a reasonable certainty that if we continue on the present course, we will see far greater changes to our climate than we’ve experienced during the last few decades. In our region, sea-level rise is the change I’m most concerned about.”
Loeb, who worked with CERES in a post-doctoral program before he came to
NASA Langley about 10 years ago, couches his words carefully. He seems
reluctant to speak in absolutes about global warming, but instead cites
overwhelming evidence. In his health analogy, a doctor knows that there are
people who live to age 90 and smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, but has
plenty of evidence to show that it’s the exception, not the rule.
The real difference in the comparisons is stark.
“We have only one Earth,” Loeb said. “Whereas a doctor will have several
cases to study, we don’t have a bunch of Earths. We’ve got to get this
It’s the reason for CERES, which has been sending instruments aloft since
1997 to measure the solar radiation absorbed by Earth and the infrared radiation the Earth emits to space. CERES is celebrating 10 years of data transmission from TERRA, its second
satellite carrier, at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting in
San Francisco this week.
AQUA was launched with more CERES instruments in 2002, and more are
scheduled to go aloft in 2011 and 2014.
Instruments in space do not enter political debates.
“If you believe global warming is happening, and I think 95 percent of
scientists do, or even if you don’t believe it, I think everyone can agree
that we should measure the system,” Loeb said. “Whatever conclusions you
make are based on scientific observations, and if we don’t fund basic
measurements of the system, then I think we’re in trouble.”
It’s his message in meetings and conferences all over the world. Loeb
travels at least once a month.
It makes time spent at home, walking on the beach in East Ocean View with
wife Ava and their dog, Cruiser, more valuable. He also enjoys playing in an
“over-35” basketball program in Virginia Beach, staying current in a sport
he learned while growing up and attending an English school near his home in
St. Jerome, a town near Montreal in predominantly French-speaking,
Loeb is bi-lingual, though admits that his French is eroding from lack of
Also, “I played organized hockey as a kid,” Loeb said. “I stopped once I
reached 12, 13, but played rec hockey once in a while.”
He was educated in Montreal’s McGill University.
For all of his beach walks, Loeb understands that it’s never possible to
escape the global warming debate.
“I think it’s probably the right role for scientists to just do the science
in an objective fashion and not be advocates,” he said. “If the science is
compelling one way or the other, certainly we should go forward and make
recommendations based on the scientific fact.
“That’s really our role. But I don’t think we should have to lobby
He also understands the evolution of the debate and that it’s increasingly
come down on the side of science, but that a lack of absolutes fuels
“People want proof,” he said. “We can only rely on observations, the history
of the Earth and on computer models that simulate the Earth. We look at
projections of certain scenarios, and it’s our job to keep those models
honest and identify weaknesses and strengths.”
He is adamant, though, that the problem with global warming exists.
“In the science community, 90-95 percent of the scientists understand the
problem as being significant,” he said. “It’s pretty basic physics.
“The media wants two sides of the story, so they will present the side
represented by the other 5 percent. So the public gets the impression that
this is a 50-50 debate, and it isn’t. And more and more I think the media is
finding it harder to find scientists on the denying side.”
That’s because more and more data, like that from CERES, is fueling the
position of the side of the majority. It’s why the CERES group is receiving
the William T. Pecora Award for its contribution toward understanding the
Earth by means of remote sensing.
“And we have a lot more work to do,” Loeb said.