November 24, 2015, 13:08 PST

Gummy penguins

The other Thanksgiving bird

Not quite real penguins on a not quite real ice floe.

Not quite real penguins on a not quite real ice floe.

Take a moment from your holiday preparations to consider what a science team in Antarctica will be feasting on this Thursday. Here’s a hint: It’s not turkey. According to Dr. Heidi Roop, research associate at the University of Rochester’s Taylor Glacier Blue Ice Drilling Project, the hottest new tradition among polar scientists working in the field in Antarctica is to chow down on gummy penguins for the Thanksgiving holiday—and today, she’s busy stuffing her suitcase with the candy critters.

As soon as the Air National Guard’s C-17 aircraft gets her to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, and then a helicopter gets her to Taylor Glacier, she expects her backpack will be the most sought-after game in camp, at least for a few days. Sugary snacks help field scientists get through the cold nights, she explained. Sometimes they sleep with candy in their tents so they can keep their metabolism up. “A chocolate bar at midnight is of one the quickest ways to get warm,” Roop explains.

Heidi Roop
Dr. Heidi Roop packs for an Antarctic expedition.

Roop and the rest of the polar expedition team will spend two months in the field drilling 70 meters down through Taylor Glacier in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys to collect ice core samples. They melt the ice cores on site to release the air bubbles that had been trapped in the ice. The analysis of ancient air extracted from ice cores is a crucial way for scientists to gather evidence of greenhouse gases, such as methane, in Earth’s past climate.

You can find out more about the University of Rochester Ice Core Lab here and follow their expedition here. I’ll continue to write about their field research once they’ve finished their candy feast and gotten out of their tents to work off their sugar high in the cold, blue icescape.

And whatever you decide to feast on, I hope you enjoy it.


November 16, 2015, 15:55 PST

#Science is hard. Everything doesn’t just land on your lap.

Take OCO-2 for example.

#Science is hard. Everything doesn’t just land on your lap.

NASA’s Global Climate Change website gets a lot of user feedback. Aside from typical random Internet trolls and students posing thinly veiled attempts at getting us to write their term papers, one of the most commonly asked questions goes something like this:

“Hey, NASA, are you really sure people are causing climate change? Have you double-checked?” or “Hey, NASA, I have an idea. Maybe climate change is caused by x, y, z and it’s not really caused by humans. You should look into this.”

The short answer to this type of question is “Yes, we’ve double-, triple-, quadruple-checked. It’s science! We check and recheck a gazillion times. We’ve looked into everything you could possibly imagine and more. Before we commit to what we say, we have a strong desire to make sure it’s actually true.”

One example of how careful we have to be is when we’re analyzing the carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere from space. OCO-2 is the NASA mission designed to be sensitive enough to detect a single part of carbon dioxide per million parts of atmosphere (ppm). The way it works is super complicated. And because carbon dioxide is the most important human contribution to climate change (the biggest issue of our time) and expectations of science results were set very high, we have to be super-duper certain our measurements are correct.

The sensitivity makes it very challenging.

The instruments on OCO-2 not only measure the absolute amount of carbon dioxide at a location, but they also look for very small gradients in the distribution of CO2, the difference in the distribution of carbon dioxide between one location and another as a function of time. For example, “a gradient on and off a city is like 2 parts per million,” explained Mike Gunson, project scientist for the mission. "You see 2 parts per million from any city of modest size on up. You’re looking at the difference between 399.5 and 401.5 parts per million. So you have to be careful. Nobody’s done this over New York City, Mumbai, Beijing or Shanghai, where it could be wildly different.”

Scientists spend their lives working to get reliable data. Science is hard; it’s not a walk in the park. Everything doesn't just land in your lap. Sometimes it’s a miracle to get any data at all. People don’t often talk about the challenges of doing science, but if you could uncover the history of any project, you would probably find loads of problems, issues and challenges that come up.

After most NASA satellite launches, the instruments typically go through a validation phase, a two- or three-month period when engineers and project managers check, double-check and recheck the data coming in from the satellite to assess its quality and make sure it’s absolutely accurate before it’s released to the scientific community. But with OCO-2, “there is no validation phase,” Gunson told me, “because the measurements have such sensitivity. You’re always validating. Constant validation is an integral part of ensuring the integrity of the dataset.”

For OCO-2 to make an observation, the sky has to be clear, without clouds. Too much wind will move the carbon dioxide, so you also need quiet meteorological conditions. Then, before we can make an inference, we must assess the quality of data, which involves exceptionally large computing capacity.” Because there is so much data coming in, you end up using all sorts of analysis techniques, including machine learning, to analyze the quality of the data. OCO-2 launched in July 2014, and since this past September the data have been released to the broader science community to sink their teeth into. This means, Gunson said, “after a year of alligator-wrestling, all of a sudden we can walk it on a leash.”

Find out more about OCO-2 here and here. And check out the data here.

Learn more about NASA’s efforts to better understand the carbon and climate challenge.

I look forward to your comments.


October 29, 2015, 06:00 PDT

Waste not, want not

Is climate change a challenge or an opportunity? Or both?

A huge landfill at the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida. Photo courtesy of Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.

A huge landfill at the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida. Photo courtesy of Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.

It would be so easy to sit around all day complaining about climate change and global warming. I mean, hey, we’ve got so many storms that my colleague who updates “Latest Events” on our Eyes on the Earth web app rolls her eyes as if to say “I can’t even.” Global warming, drought, El Niño, big hurricanes: Planet Earth is like, “You want a piece of me?” And even as the challenge of climate change and global warming hits us in the face like wave after wave of storm surge, I ask myself: Are they challenges or are they opportunities? Or both?  

Some thrive on transforming things that appear negative. And perhaps nothing appears more negative than our garbage. It’s … garbage, refuse, trash, rubbish, junk – the waste products of our lives, the stuff we determine useless. Wouldn’t it be amazing if it were possible to take that discarded dreck and turn it into something that we really, really want and need?

Well, there is.

And the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida has taken the lead. They have the most advanced and cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in North America. They take trash directly from garbage trucks and load it into "the Pit," which is designed to handle up to seven days of waste. Grapples that look like giant claws feed the waste into one of three boilers. There, it’s burned to generate steam, which drives a turbine generator to produce electricity. A suite of pollution control technologies ensures extremely low air emissions.

A grapple moves a pile of garbage to the incinerator to be converted to energy in the renewable energy facility instead of being added to a landfill. Photo courtesy of Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.
A grapple moves a pile of garbage to the incinerator to be converted to energy in the renewable energy facility instead of being added to a landfill. Photo courtesy of Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.

The plant can process 3,000 tons of trash every day and convert it into enough electricity to power more than 40,000 homes and businesses. Yeah. 

There are a bunch of reasons why waste-to-energy power plants benefit the environment:

  • First, the Renewable Energy Facilities at the Solid Waste Authority reduce greenhouse gas emissions by producing electricity that otherwise would have been generated by burning fossil fuels.
  • The system also decreases the volume of waste that goes to the landfill, thereby limiting methane generation, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
  • The facility has recycled nearly 2 million tons of paper, plastic, aluminum and glass and recovers metals, such as iron and aluminum, from materials discarded by the residents and businesses. Manufacturing new products from recycled materials consumes less energy and significantly reduces greenhouse gas generation compared to mining and metal production from raw materials.
  • The Solid Waste Authority also collects gases generated by the landfill to effectively prevent emissions into the atmosphere. These gases are harnessed to produce energy, which helps reduce fossil fuel reliance.

Tom Henderson, project manager at Arcadis, managed the development of this 7- to 8-year project, because he knew how to put the team of talented people together and understood the political and engineering aspects of getting the plant built. During our phone conversation, he told me “the primary purpose of these facilities is to eliminate the need for a landfill.”

Landfills are forever

I told him I didn’t think most of this blog’s readers had ever been to a landfill, so I asked him to describe what it’s like to stand next to one.

“The first thing you notice is that these facilities are huge,” he told me. “It’s not like there’s a couple of bags of trash brought there every day. There’s tens of thousands of tons, hundreds and hundreds of truckloads, so the first thing you’re impressed with is how much trash there is. It’s just this huge volume of material.” Throwing so much stuff away is one of the major greenhouse gas and climate change contributors.

Yikes. I wondered if you could identify individual things or if it looked more like a mush pit. “You see food waste, a lot of paper and plastic, mattresses. The smell is pretty bad,” he told me. “Just about anything you could imagine in your home or office today is going to end up at a place like that in most places in this country.”

I looked around my room at my night table with a lamp on it, a moisturizer, a phone cable, some papers. I thought about all the Halloween decorations I’d walked past this morning.

All of it, all of it, all of it, ends up in a landfill

We went on to discuss how, as a society, we’ve become very selfish. People don’t want to think about this big mound of trash. We want what we want and we don’t care what happens to it after the trash truck drives off. Yup, that is us.  

Well, some people care; you might even be one of them. But judging by the way our society disposes its trash, its waste products, it’s obvious we don’t care enough to stop what we’ve been doing.  

“Landfills are very inexpensive to build,” said Henderson, “but you have to maintain them forever.” (He emphasized the word “ever” as if to extend the timeline with the tone of his voice.) “A hundred years from now, the liner system will have failed and we have to go back and spend money to clean it.” As he spoke, I thought about the parallel to climate change: The maintenance cost is not included in the initial cost of the landfill, just as the cost of adaptation is not included in the price of burning fossil fuels.

Henderson explained how easy it is to “build landfills if nobody is there to complain about it.” But in Palm Beach County, Florida, the County Commission decided to deal with their own problem, rather than exporting it like a lot of other large cities. When people are involved in their community, they have more control over what happens. “We’re creating this problem. We should deal with it ourselves.” Waste-to-energy plants are usually right inside the community. They decided that it was not okay to put the garbage in a truck and drive it hundreds and hundreds of miles “away.” And in fact, at their waste-to-energy facility, they have a sign that says, “This is where ‘away’ is.”

On Planet Earth, there is no “away.” “Away” is here.  

Find out more about the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida's waste-to-energy plant here and here.

And thank you so much for reading.


October 20, 2015, 12:26 PDT

When global warming gets you down, come back stronger

Credit: Barnaby Chambers/

Credit: Barnaby Chambers/

There are days when you just want to crawl under your desk and hide in the fetal position. I felt like that this morning. And indeed, I may feel this way for the rest of the week – or longer. Everywhere I turn, some giant challenge smacks me in the gut (ahem, global warming) and I’m supposed to bounce with glee like “NASA, NASA, rah rah roo!” all day long.

I’m sure you know what I mean. This weekend I walked past a busy café and saw single use plastic trash spilling everywhere. You can see this in café after café, day after day, everywhere. It’s a symptom of people paying lip service to caring for the environment, but being absolutely paralyzed. If the most we ask of ourselves is to buy more and more stuff and carry it a whole 2 feet to a trash bin, then how in the world are we going to tackle the big things?

The energy it takes to make honest, interesting and informative content for this climate website, the energy it takes to not let the daily deluge of Internet trolls and nasty comments get to me, all while facing the reality of GLOBAL WARMING, is exhausting.

I try to make a difference, to keep encouraging myself, to lift myself out of despair. We’re supposed to keep our noses to the do-something-meaningful-with-your-life grindstone and keep chugging endlessly uphill, just like The Little Engine That Could, while repeating some mindless positive slogans of encouragement to keep our heads up.

I try to find a way to cope with these enormous problems without turning away, without downing a pint of ice cream, without watching the stupidest reality TV show I can find. For to be so disconnected from the world as to be capable of polluting it, is to be disconnected from life. And connection is the one thing I refuse to let go of.

True, maybe you really should crawl under your desk and your little engine should pull over to the side of the road for a break. But you’re here, just like I am, pushing through because it’s somehow better to stay connected even if it hurts.

I’ve sat in countless meetings here at NASA, where scientists and engineers fight to create complex flying machines that observe particles as tiny as a molecule from miles away, or hand build a one-of-a-kind experimental instrument from scratch, out of nothing but innovation and dreams. We thrive on the incomprehensibly difficult. We welcome problems, challenges, roadblocks, obstacles that are impossibly, mind-bogglingly large. That’s why I’m here: To feed on frustration, difficulty and hindrance until I grow stronger and more ferocious.

JPL engineers working on hardware in the clean room. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
JPL engineers working on hardware in the clean room. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

I look forward to your comments.


October 6, 2015, 04:17 PDT

Satellites, ships, planes and yes, it’s true: NASA has balloons, too!

(Sooner or later, we’re bound to have hoverboards)

The balloon launch at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, carrying Langley Research Center's Radiation Dosimetry Experiment (RaD-X). Credit: Brett Vincent, NASA's Wallops Flight Facility

The balloon launch at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, carrying Langley Research Center's Radiation Dosimetry Experiment (RaD-X). Credit: Brett Vincent, NASA's Wallops Flight Facility

Those of you who follow this blog know that, on top of launching satellites into space, NASA has a suite of Earth-observing instruments, a robust airborne program of instruments mounted on planes, and science ships.

Final frontier? I don’t think so. Our catch phrase should be more like “Frontiers are us.” We’re all over the place.

Recently, Chris Mertens, a NASA scientist interested in galactic cosmic rays, shepherded a NASA balloon all the way to the top of Earth’s atmosphere. The balloon, which stood a couple hundred feet tall and held 11 million cubic feet of helium, had a flight train attached to it with a payload of four science instruments and a parachute. He watched it lift off from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and float away on a 24-hour research journey. “It was pretty surreal seeing it drift vertically away,” he told me. “The apparatus looked big in the flight facility but looked so small as it was going up. It floated so gracefully, effortlessly.”

Up, up and away

As the balloon lifted off, Chief Engineer Amanda Cutright could hear two sets of cheers, one at the location and a second over the delay at NASA’s Langley Research Center where members of the team were watching a broadcast of the event. But she was “still holding her breath,” waiting for the data to come in.

Mertens and Cutright, along with Project Manager Kevin Daugherty and the rest of the Radiation Dosimetry Experiment (RaD-X) team, had spent the past few weeks prepping the balloon and payload in the deserts of New Mexico and had been anxiously awaiting its launch. (Dosimetry is the science of determining radiation dosages received by the human body.) Daugherty told me they’d been waiting for the winds to stagnate in the upper atmosphere so they could fly over the southeastern U.S. for 24 hours without going into the populated areas of Mexico or Los Angeles.

Up in the air

The project actually began years ago when Mertens heard a pilot say, “I’m exposed to radiation and I don’t know how much.” See, someone on a one-way plane trip from Chicago to Germany on a normal day is exposed to approximately one chest X-ray’s worth of radiation. Because commercial airline pilots and aircrew fly so frequently, they are actually radiation workers. So, with his background in cosmic radiation and space weather physics, Mertens knew he could develop a model to predict the radiation levels in Earth’s upper atmosphere and answer that question. With this balloon flight, the RaD-X team expects to learn more about the amount of radiation flight crews receive on a daily, monthly or yearly basis and throughout their careers.

Up, up, up, up

The balloon on edge of space, showing the Earth's curvature. Credit: Brett Vincent, NASA's Wallops Flight Facility
A view of the edge of space from RaD-X onboard camera.

About two hours after launch, the balloon reached the middle of the stratosphere, about 110-120 thousand feet up, right on the edge of space. That’s about three times as high as commercial airplanes normally fly. From onboard cameras, “we could see the curvature of the Earth and watch the clouds recede,” said Cutright. The team wanted to look at the incoming galactic cosmic rays and radiation from the sun above the region where the particles interact with the atmosphere and break up into smaller particles. “Earth’s radiation environment is complex,” Mertens explained. “Our magnetic field has a dynamic response to the solar wind and varies with latitude. At the polar regions, radiation exposure is maximum because the magnetic field lines are vertical. This means that during a solar storm, the incoming charged particles at the polar cap are parallel to the magnetic field lines, so there’s no deflection by the magnetic field.”

Yes, Earth’s magnetic field is seriously rad.

Earth's magnetosphere
The sun's magnetic storms approaching Earth's magnetosphere. The white lines represent the solar wind; the purple line is the bow shock line; and the blue lines surrounding the Earth represent its protective magnetosphere. Isn't the magnetosphere rad? Credit: Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

Just past sunset, they purposely let enough helium out of the balloon to lower it to the 70-89 thousand foot range and have it float there overnight. All four dosimetry instruments collected data at both altitudes to feed into NAIRAS, an analytical model that simulates tissue and how radiation impacts it.

For the rest of the flight, the RaD-X team watched visuals from the onboard cameras, gathered near real-time data on their computers and tracked the balloon flight path from the control room.

“At one point late at night,” said Cutright, “we were watching the Earth and we could see the moon. We could see a lightning storm over Oklahoma, all the way from the edge of Texas and New Mexico.”

After sunrise, the team watched the parachute deploy so the payload could descend safely; from the camera view, they watched the Earth getting bigger and bigger. The payload was cut from the balloon and a large hole ripped on the side of the balloon so it could fall on its own off to the side. The balloon landed in a rancher’s field and the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility out of NASA Wallops recovered it.

Thank you for reading and for your comments.


PS: 100 low-cost Cubes in Space experiments from 100 classrooms across the country were also on the flight. Some of their experiments included kernels of popcorn to see if they pop at altitude and seeds and electronics to find out how radiation affects them. Now that you know NASA helped students send kernels of popcorn to the edge of space, aren’t you dying to find out if they popped or not? I am. I’ll try my best to find out and post it here.

September 28, 2015, 06:06 PDT


You’re gonna lose it when you hear about Oceans Melting Greenland

The M/V Cape Race at Kullorsuaq, Greenland, picks up fresh drinking water. Credit: Justin Fenty

The M/V Cape Race at Kullorsuaq, Greenland, picks up fresh drinking water. Credit: Justin Fenty

This morning when I told someone I’d interviewed NASA oceanographer Josh Willis for this blog, they replied, “Isn’t Josh Willis a climatologist?”

“Aha!” I said. “That’s a problem. Not knowing that Earth’s ocean is responsible for controlling the climate is major. Oceanographers are climatologists.”

I mean, look, the ocean covers 71 percent of the planet’s surface, and 71 percent is like, duh, a lot. The ocean, in fact, is so important that a better name for our planet would have been “Ocean” rather than “Earth” — even though our species spends most of its time on boring old land. #sorrynotsorry, geologists.

And you might not realize this because it’s so familiar, but water is crazy. It has this unusual property, called “high heat capacity,” that gives it the ability to hold a stable temperature. It resists heating and cooling. Water will absorb a lot of energy before it changes temperature even a little bit.

And this property of water, this high heat capacity, is what makes life on our planet possible. It’s also what controls and moderates our climate, which is why our ocean, more than our atmosphere, is responsible for creating a stable climate on Earth.

So this is the reason oceanographers are climatologists. It’s also part of the reason Willis chose to name his new science project Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG). He hopes that people everywhere will recognize the role Earth’s ocean plays in controlling the climate and to say to the world, “Hey! The ocean is eating away at the ice sheet! The ocean is playing a huge role in melting the glaciers; it's melting Greenland!”

Remember I just told you water absorbs a lot of energy before it heats up? Well, humans have added so much energy to the Earth system by burning fossil fuels that we have heated the ocean. And now that we’ve warmed it up, you guessed it: The water is in no hurry to change back, so we’re going to be stuck with this warmer water for a very long time. And, says Willis, “Since Greenland is one of the last two remaining ice sheets on the planet, its fate is intertwined with how much destruction we’re going to have with climate change.” If you just said “OMG,” you would be right.

But if you think scientists know everything there is to know about the ocean, you would be very wrong. Willis and his team want to find out more about the complicated geometry (the shape and depth of the seafloor) around Greenland to understand the interaction between the water and ice so that we can find out how fast the glaciers are melting.

M/V Cape Race ship track for phase 1 of 2015 OMG survey
M/V Cape Race ship track for phase 1 of 2015 OMG survey. Credit: Ian Fenty
This summer OMG used a ship, M/V Cape Race, to sail right up the narrow fjords on the continental shelf surrounding Greenland to the places where the 4- to 5-degree Atlantic Ocean water meets the bottoms of the frozen zero degree glaciers. The Cape Race used a multibeam echo sounder to map undersea canyons where the warm seawater comes in contact with and melts the glaciers. Willis followed the ship’s path via smartphone, sitting up in his PJs at two o’clock in the morning and uttering a variety of exclamations, including “OMG, turn left, left!”

Next year, the Cape Race will continue to make its way around Greenland, mapping the depth of the seafloor near the fjords, while Willis joins his team in the field flying on NASA’s G-III plane.

“OMG is a big picture project,” he told me. ”We want to see what’s happening in the ocean on the large scale and what’s happening to the ice sheet on the largest scales.”

In the spring, the NASA aircraft, with Willis aboard, will measure how much Greenland glaciers are thinning using the Glacier and Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN-A) instrument. They plan to deploy temperature and salinity probes in the summer. “In most of these places, there’s been no temperature and salinity data collected,” Willis said pausing, “ever.” Over the next five years, they will continue to monitor the ice sheet, asking, “When the water is this warm, how much ice melts?”

Willis knows “OMG” is a campy name for a NASA mission that makes light of a serious subject. “It’s easier to accept something as a reality when you can laugh at it, and accepting reality is a step towards making a change,” he said, explaining that if he was bummed out about climate change all the time, he would be stuck. “Humor makes it tolerable.”

Hopefully, when you find out about Oceans Melting Greenland, you’ll respond in the only way that’s appropriate: “OMG!”

Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland herehere and here.

View an infographic about the mission here.

Thank you for reading, sharing and commenting.


September 11, 2015, 22:42 PDT

El Niño can do some serious trash talking

El Niño: 1997 vs. 2015 side by side comparisons of Pacific Ocean sea surface height (SSH). More here.

El Niño: 1997 vs. 2015 side by side comparisons of Pacific Ocean sea surface height (SSH). More here.

“The water is soooo warm!”

That sentence keeps popping out of Angelenos' mouths. It’s practically impossible to stick a toe into the California Pacific Ocean without making some sort of immediate involuntary exclamation regarding the water temperature. And the water has been unbelievably warm lately. The surf zone is full of swimmers frolicking in the waves. And even my cold-water averse puppy is now joyously prancing on his skinny little legs through the surf.

But along with the in-and-out, back-and-forth of the waves, my own moments of beach-ly delight also have an up-and-down quality. See, every time I stroll across the sand, I notice trash. Some pieces of trash are large items that people have obviously left on purpose, too neglectful to carry them away. Other pieces are small bits of plastic: a torn shred of wrapper, a crumb of rubber band that accidentally got away. I can’t help myself from noticing it. And I can’t help myself from picking it up, every piece I see, walking it over to a trash can, and throwing it in. When I see a piece of beach trash, nothing in me will allow me to walk past it. I can’t not pick it up.

A few days ago, as the sun was setting and most of the people had gone, I saw a seagull with a water bottle in its mouth. It reminded me of my puppy, who loves to chew a water bottle. He’ll grab it and run gleefully in circles until he drops and gets busy on the cap. If I don’t take it off him, he will start to swallow the chewed pieces. The gull was doing the same thing, playing with the bottle near the edge of the water, pecking instead of chewing, but otherwise in the same bouncy mood. I chased him down, took the water bottle off him and recycled it.

So I left the beach with mixed feelings. I’m just one person on one beach for one day. What about the rest of the beaches? What about the other days? Who will pick up the plastic there?

I come to this blog with similar mixed feelings. The warm waves feel wonderful, but I know it’s warm because of El Niño, the global climate event that starts on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean all the way from California down to Peru. El Niño is complicated.1 Will it bring much-needed rain to the parched southwestern region of the United States and relieve us from this ongoing drought? Will it be too much rain all at one time? Will it cause flooding and landslides?

Even now the warmer waters on our side of the Pacific are causing many species that thrive in cooler waters to struggle while warmer water species are temporarily moving in. Sure, it’s interesting to SCUBA dive and see tropical fish, but the sea lions who depend on cooler waters are hating it big time.

Up-and-down, back-and-forth, in-and-out.

Benny the puppy ready for the beach.
Benny the puppy ready for the beach.
I figured you wouldn’t want to read yet another depressing piece about how much we’re trashing our planet. So, in searching for something less dismal, I went to talk with Bill Patzert and Josh Willis, unarguably the world’s leading experts on El Niño, to see what they had to say about our current El Niño conditions (other than the fact that they’re making a swim more pleasant and bringing lots of pink clouds to our Southern California sunsets).

As I walked in, the two NASA oceanographers were in the middle of a discussion about the impact of El Niño rains on the amount of ocean trash. “Oh perfect,” I thought. “So I’m going with a trash-themed blog. Game on, Oscar the Grouch, game on.”

When I told them about my inability to walk past trash at the beach, Patzert said, “Our beaches have been exceptionally clean for over a decade now because we haven’t had a strong El Niño. As soon as those rains come, any trash hibernating in our storm sewers or on our streets will get flushed into the L.A. River and onto SoCal beaches.”

Woohoo, trash!! Too bad Oscar isn’t a sea monster. He’d be elated.

Find out more about El Niño and the NASA instruments that study the phenomenon from space here.

Thank you for your comments.


1Some scientific info about El Niño: Most of the time, under normal ocean conditions, trade winds blow from the east side of the Pacific to the west side. These winds push surface water towards the Western Pacific near Asia and Australia where the warm water piles up. This Western Pacific Warm Pool contains some of the warmest ocean waters on the planet. Every decade or so, the trade winds soften and all that warm water that normally stays on the western side of the Pacific, sloshes back towards the east and we get a phenomenon known as El Niño. Since the Pacific Ocean takes up about half of planet Earth, it has the potential to affect global weather patterns. A strong El Niño can bring warm moist conditions to the West Coasts of the Americas, while leaving Australia and Southeast Asia unusually dry. So far, the 2015-2016 El Niño is shaping up to be an exceptionally strong one.

August 27, 2015, 09:34 PDT

Cool your jets and check out NASA's jet engine test dome

The first 'A' in NASA stands for 'awesome sauce'

A jet engine in the AeroAcoustic Propulsion Laboratory at NASA's Glenn Research Center. Credit: NASA's Glenn Research Center

A jet engine in the AeroAcoustic Propulsion Laboratory at NASA's Glenn Research Center. Credit: NASA's Glenn Research Center

When you think “NASA,” obviously you think of space.

As in: Duh. Space … yeah. Space. It’s NASA.

But what about the first "A" in NASA? The acronym stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Aeronautics: the science, art and technology of making machines that fly.

David Stephens
David Stephens, a research aerospace engineer at Glenn Research Center.
Which means we’re leaders in developing spacecraft and aircraft. And since the number of people flying on commercial passenger aircraft is so enormous, any NASA research that can support even small improvements in airplanes can be extremely valuable.

One important improvement engineers at NASA are working on is increasing the fuel efficiency of jet engines. Since fossil fuels are responsible for adding carbon dioxide to our atmosphere and aircraft are very dependent on high quality liquid fuels, making planes more efficient would be awesome sauce.

To learn more about aeronautics at NASA, I met up with David Stephens, a research aerospace engineer. He talked to me about some of his work and gave me an inside tour of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

See, as Stephens and his colleagues work to improve the fuel efficiency of aircraft, they have to simultaneously keep engine noise down because fuel efficiency equals: Woohoo! And airplane noise equals: Woohoo! Yay! Crank it up for a few seconds! (And then eeew, make it stop!)

The first stop on our tour of Glenn was the AeroAcoustic Propulsion Laboratory, a 65-foot radius geodesic dome, which looks ginormous from the outside. Inside the dome, the walls are completely covered with thousands of silver colored wedges arranged in a complex pattern. Each of the wedges is about the size of a bed pillow. Everything is silver and shiny. I tilted my head back and looked all the way up to the very high ceiling. It definitely felt like the type of place where new flight technology gets created and tested.

Aero-Acoustic Propulsion Laboratory
Wide angle view of the AeroAcoustic Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA's Glenn Research Center
The purpose of having of a giant, shiny, silver dome room is to create what’s called an “anechoic acoustic chamber,” an echo-free space where sound doesn’t bounce off the walls and all you hear is the noise directly from the jet engine part being tested. It's similar to a sound studio lined with egg cartons you might have seen, but bigger—much bigger—and silver and all dome-shaped and yeah, NASA.

Some engineering problems can be solved by doing calculations on computers, but not noise. When you want to make a jet engine quieter, sooner or later you’re going to have to go out there and listen to it. And this AeroAcoustic dome is definitely one of the best places to do just that.

To develop the latest breakthrough technology, NASA concept aircraft must always push the boundaries. This means when a new concept is proposed, Stephens' group will be asked, "What does it sound like?" If you’re like me, you might suspect that the noisiest part of a jet engine is the combustion, the burning bits. But it turns out the culprit for most of the noise making for modern commercial aircraft engine is usually the fan.

My tour of Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field also included:

Find out more about NASA’s AeroAcoustic Propulsion Lab here.

Find out more about all NASA Glenn Research Facilities here.

August 12, 2015, 15:08 PDT

Snapping into a clean energy future: Think you could do it?

Credit: Aliwak/

Credit: Aliwak/

“How difficult is it going to be to switch from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy economy?” asked a gentleman from the audience. I paused and took a deep breath.

I was giving a lecture about climate change at a retirement community, and I’d been thinking about my own parents ever since I’d stepped through the front door earlier. Situated a couple hours north of Los Angeles, the “retirement village,” as they called it, was immaculate. It resembled a glamorous apartment hotel with Spanish architecture, wide foyers and grounds that were landscaped with drought-tolerant plants for the California climate. As I was escorted to the lecture hall, I noticed a few residents peacefully walking dogs.

I took a second breath and began my answer. “My parents would love it here.” A hundred puzzled faces looked up at me, wondering what this comment about my parents had to do with the global energy economy. “When I talk with them about moving out of their burdensome three-bedroom home, they tell me that if they could just snap their fingers and be here right now,” I said, waving my arm high while making a grand snapping gesture, “they’d simply do it immediately. But, they find the idea of the transition utterly unbearable. So they’re stuck. Heels dug in, entrenched, immobile, paralyzed.”

While I was talking, an image popped, unwelcome, into my mind’s eye. I saw my parents’ fine china, stacked in a dusty credenza, untouched for 47-plus years. “They don’t want to go through their belongings and make choices,” I said. “They’re afraid of the amount of hard work.”

At this point I needed to pull away from my own emotions and check in with the people sitting in front of me. “Does any of this make sense to you? Does it seem familiar?” I saw a hundred white-haired heads nod simultaneously. I heard a hundred mumbled “Uh huhs.” In all my years of public speaking, this was the first time I’d experienced an entire room of people in agreement.

One gentleman near the front said, “That was me before I came here.” Another said, “I have some friends exactly like that right now.”

It’s easy for me to imagine a time off into the future, eventually, someday, where people will look back on all the credenzas and all the coal-fired power plants and regard them with the same quaint fondness that we have for Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep character from “Mary Poppins”: charming relics of a bygone era.

What I worry about, on both personal and global levels, is that it might take a catastrophic upheaval before the transition to better, cleaner, more comfortable conditions occurs. And those kinds of catastrophic events could be painful, personally and globally. I said as much to the group of seniors at the retirement village, and this time I didn’t need to ask them if they understood me. I could see it in their eyes. And the same guy in the front said quietly, “Yeah, that was me before I came here.”

Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments.


July 30, 2015, 07:32 PDT

Taking out our trash

What happens on planet Earth stays on planet Earth

Credit: Onslow County Government. View larger image.

Credit: Onslow County Government. View larger image.

We say we throw our trash away. But, where is 'away'?

Yesterday I was meeting with a few scientists down at the University of California, Irvine. Like any other campus, there were plenty of trash cans. Except they weren’t called trash cans. Some were labeled “recycling” and others were named “landfill.” It struck me how a simple shift in what we name something can make such a difference in how our mind sees it. Trash is a vague concept whereas landfill is a specific location with a concrete meaning and has an extremely different connotation from the word “trash.” If it’s trash, then we can say we’re “throwing it away.” Trash goes to that invisible place called “away.” If it’s landfill, then it goes in the, you know, landfill, the most unglamorous place of all.

Over the weekend a Mylar balloon landed in my yard. It reminded me of the idea of away. People like to release balloons into the sky as a celebration. The balloons are carried “away.” But the balloons don’t really go away. They don’t go anywhere; they stay here on Earth, sometimes in people’s yards, but most often balloons released into the sky end up in the ocean. This is why I’ve always hated balloons. To me, they represent society’s collective decision to not see how much we waste; to pay as little attention as possible to that place we’ve decided to label “away.”

Carbon pollution is one more of our “aways.” We turn on the light to see, but all the wires that wind from the switch, through the wall, across town to the power plant that releases the colorless, odorless, heat-absorbing gas remain in the invisible realm of our “away.” We know it’s there because instruments such as NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) and Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) do see it. But carbon dioxide gas and the heat it traps aren’t going away, not any time soon, not until we start to change the way we see our world.

Because there is no such thing as “away.” The only thing that’s real is here.

Recycle or landfill?
Recycling and "landfill" bins on the campus of the University of California, Irvine.

I look forward to your comments.

Thank you,