Energy & water cycles

We are using observations from satellite instruments and comparing these to climate prediction models to better understand the Earth’s radiation budget and the hydrological cycle.

All of the research undertaken by NCEO researchers is underpinned by the physics of Earth’s radiative balance: the incoming radiation from the Sun versus the outgoing radiation emitted by the Earth. The balance between these two energy streams at the top of the Earth’s atmosphere is, at the most fundamental level, what drives our climate system.

The water cycle is inextricably tied up in the exchange of energy around the globe. Clouds and water vapour are strong modulators of both solar and emitted terrestrial radiation, while the heat exchanged during phase changes (condensation and evaporation) plays a key role in heating the atmosphere.. However, understanding the many feedbacks within and between the energy and water cycles, including the exchanges of energy at the land surface is a major scientific challenge.

Our research priorities are:

  • To quantify the multi-year, natural variability seen in radiative energy fluxes at the surface, TOA and within the atmosphere and understand the factors driving this variability: key to detecting and attributing change at the fundamental radiative energy balance level;
  • To exploit synergy between active and passive sensor measurements of clouds and precipitation to better understand important cloud-aerosol-precipitation processes and to ensure NCEO scientists are optimally positioned to deliver discovery science from world-first missions;
  • To improve analysis using EO data of the partitioning of the Earth’s energy balance into sensible, latent and radiative components. This will help scientists to diagnose the interplay between the energy and water cycles;
  • To perform targeted assessments of the ability of Numerical Weather Prediction, Climate and Earth System component models to capture the observed patterns for the right physical reasons. This is key to predicting future changes in energy and water cycle components.


Our current work includes:

  • Quantifying natural variability in the Earth Radiation Budget components, linking this to the Earth’s energy budget and examining the causes of variability at global and regional scales.
  • Undertaking fundamental research into land-surface temperature, soil moisture and rainfall. For example, NCEO scientists are leading international efforts to build accurate satellite records of land-surface temperature.
  • Evaluating the behaviour of the land surface, particularly related to soil moisture within Earth-System component models and Coupled climate models using satellite observations of land-surface temperature.
  • Joining international efforts on precipitation data products, for example from the Global Precipitation Measuring (GPM) satellite constellation.
  • Developing novel algorithms for ESA’s EarthCare mission, linking aerosol, cloud, precipitation and radiation.
  • Contributing towards the assessment of state of the art satellite water vapour products for the GEWEX Water Vapour Assessment (G-VAP).