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 eleven 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?

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

“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,


July 20, 2015, 15:51 PDT

Ed Begley Jr., the greenest guy around

Ed Begley Jr. inspects his oak hardwood flooring, which is 100 percent sourced from old barns and buildings.

Ed Begley Jr. inspects his oak hardwood flooring, which is 100 percent sourced from old barns and buildings.

Ed Begley Jr. was one of the first people I met when I moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in the mid ‘90s, so when we sat down this week to talk about environmentalism and the new ultra-green home he’s building, I knew exactly what direction I wanted to take our conversation. I wanted to find out what made Begley different from almost every other person I’ve met. I wanted to find out what made him so completely dedicated to a green lifestyle.

A lot of people pay lip service to going green, or take a handful of actions to reduce their impact on the environment, or complain about others who should do more or go as far as a low-carbon lifestyle, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s made more of a concerted commitment to being green as Ed has. I wanted know: What was that thing that made him do it, that impetus that really got him to push through where so many others just don’t?

Ed Begley Jr. and John Ezqueda
Ed chats with John Ezqueda from All Valley Solar about the rooftop installation of his new solar thermal water heater, which will heat all of the water in the house.
Begley started by explaining how he learned to be frugal from his father, Ed Begley Sr., who “was not a star, he was a working actor like I am,” even though he won an Academy Award. He told me his father was the son of Irish immigrants, lived through the Great Depression and was a factory worker who found career success as an actor later in life. “We turned off the lights, we turned off the water.” But I brushed off that explanation. Loads of people get stuck with (oops, I meant are fortunate enough to have) a thrifty father. If thriftiness were all it took, everyone would have gone green, like, forever ago.

Then he described growing up in the 1950s in Los Angeles. “When I was five or six, it hurt to breathe in the Valley. That’s the way it was in the '50s. We kids were running around playing tag and some days you’d just be sitting and you’d have trouble breathing. Burbank was crazy smoggy,” he continued, “because of the big electric power plant that burned dirty fuel. We’re in the middle of San Fernando Valley, yet you can’t see the mountains.” Instead of complaining, Ed said, “My dad would ask me: ‘What are you for? What would you do to fix it?’ He was a can-do guy.” Seeing the air quality improve taught Begley that he could do something, it taught him to have hope for a cleaner environment.

This point of view is very different from my own and from that of the current generations who can barely remember anything but news of political gridlock and constant bickering over climate science, climate change denial, and whether or not humans are to blame. It’s hard for most of us under 60 to remember a time when we felt like each of us, as individuals within our greater society, could make a difference, but Begley grew up with a deep inner belief that his actions could have impact. “Corporations, government, individuals: you need all three legs for the stool to stay steady,” he said. “We’re not waiting on government or corporations to do something on climate, we’re going to do it.”

Lifestyles of the rich and anxious

Another factor that helped shape his choices was his experience with rich and famous celebrities. “We would visit some of these people with fat houses and they didn’t seem one bit happier to me; in fact, they had all this stress and all these problems.” Ed saw what happened to people who were wealthy enough to buy lots and lots of material things. “I met all these movie stars and saw the anxiety that came with more stuff.”

Everything we buy, everything we own has a carbon footprint. More than just the purchase price, our things have a cost to the environment. The more possessions we have, the greater the environmental impact. The problem is, though, it’s really hard to tell people they should buy fewer possessions, especially when we’re constantly told we would be happier with more. Well, Ed spent his time with some super famous and super rich actors who actually had all that more. He observed extreme wealth, saw that more stuff didn’t make his friends happier and learned that, beyond meeting your basic needs, more and more material possessions only made his friends unhappier, and that deeply affected him. It influenced the way he decided to live and what he was willing to spend monetarily or expend environmentally.

Actions are louder than words

Ed tour
Ed gave me a tour of the construction site of his new ultra-green home.
But perhaps the most interesting thing I found out about Ed during our chat was that he’s a natural science wonk. Who knew? I’d asked him to tell me about his transition from kid/teen/young man who thought he could make a difference to knowing that he’d become a real leader in the environmental movement. He told me a story about going on a bus caravan that went around California in 1986 with Jane Fonda and a bunch of other Hollywood people to rally students about a consumer right-to-know bill. “I had a keen interest in science,” he told me, “so it turns out I knew about PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] and hexavalent chromium and trichloroethylene. I had read up on these things and the knowledge gave me the ease to speak well about it. So all of a sudden all the microphones were pointed at me.” He hadn’t planned it; he had merely been interested enough in the topic to be knowledgeable about the details. “I like nuts and bolts. I’m definitely a gear-head. That’s why I love my electric car. I want to know: How many amps does this draw, how many watts is this charger?”

As he spoke, Ed paused to check his phone. “It’s Harry Dean Stanton, he just called. I help him with a crossword puzzle every day. I have the answers right here printed on post consumer recycled paper.” He pulled a piece of folded paper out of his pocket, showed it to me, then put it back and continued talking. “I didn’t like my chemistry set, I loved it. I loved my Erector Set for years.” I noticed he was focused on specifics. Details fascinate him. He could prattle on endlessly about high storage capacity batteries, or solar array voltage, or bathroom and kitchen tiles fabricated with recycled material. It occurred to me that his house is just one giant, green Erector Set.

Still, I pressed him to try to find out what made him the greenest guy around. “I just did it cause I knew it was right,” he said. “I rode my bike to the Vanity Fair big Oscars party in the ‘90s, and I was just trying to quietly and surreptitiously lock the bike up when suddenly all these paparazzi descended on me. They took all these pictures and I was a superstar. If you do something silently and deliberately people notice.”

Clearly people have noticed. So the purpose of doing this green house is to demonstrate that both electrical and water conservation efforts can be done. “If I could do it, anybody could do it,” Ed said.

You can follow Ed on Twitter @edbegleyjr.

As always, I look forward to your comments.


June 25, 2015, 15:45 PDT

This plane is so tricked out!

The marvelous winged beast: NASA’s modified DC-8, with modified windows and intake valves. View larger image.

The marvelous winged beast: NASA’s modified DC-8, with modified windows and intake valves. View larger image.

Walter Klein, mission manager
Walter Klein, mission manager, sitting at the mission board.
“Wow, wow, wow, wow! This plane is so tricked out!” I was instantly smacked in the face by total coolness overload. The awesome factor just freaked me out. I must have said “Wow” at least fifty times. Before yesterday, I’d often described NASA’s Airborne Research Program as “a collection of NASA planes with NASA instruments on them,” but hey, that was before I’d actually boarded one.

To get ready for flying on this airborne mission, the Student Airborne Research Program (SARP), I read up on the aircraft, a “modified DC-8.” The info seemed straightforward enough. I viewed some animations of the plane’s configuration, and filled out a bunch of paperwork, but nothing could have prepared me for the moment I first stepped foot on that plane.

Collecting air samples
Collecting air samples at altitude to be brought back to labs on the ground.
A “modified DC-8,” you call it? Hah! The term “modified” doesn’t even come close to describing this marvelous winged beast, every inch of which has been fully customized to work as a flying science laboratory. Wanna hear about it? I’ll bet you do.

Of course there were more large computer systems, collection canisters, science instruments, navigation and coordination consoles and other equipment than I could ever have imagined, but it was the smaller details that really struck me. For example, many of the typical cloudy, yellow commercial aircraft windows had been replaced by panels with tubes and valves for collecting air samples at altitude. They stuck out of the holes where the old windows had been. There are also holes on the bottom of the plane for the radar instruments. I sat near a type of optical window, which was maximized for clear viewing and bolted into the fuselage.

Checking the flight path
One of the flight navigators checks the flight path.
Another thing I thought was cool was that literally three minutes into the flight, one of the mission managers announced, “OK, time to get up out of your seats, get moving and go to work.” As someone who hates sitting still, I was like, “This is fantastic!” Within moments the plane was crawling with scientists taking measurements of carbon monoxide, ozone and carbon dioxide and filling racks of canisters with air samples to take back to their lab on the ground. (Learn more about the SARP science here.) Flight project coordinators were busy communicating with science project coordinators and the pilots over the headsets to make sure the science objectives were achieved.

Taking measurements at low altitude
One of the science objectives was to take measurements while flying at low altitudes.
I took a turn in the cockpit for a while to spend time with two pilots and a flight engineer. The science required us to fly as low as 1,000 feet over the Sierra Nevadas along multiple prearranged flight paths. Remaining at a constant altitude while flying over mountains with extremely variable terrain meant these pilots had to tuck in and really fly the plane (as in “Pay attention, y’all! There ain’t no autopilot- or cruise control-kind of flying.”)

Learn more about NASA’s airborne science here.

Learn more about NASA’s aircraft here.

Track NASA aircraft in real-time here. (Click on “satellite” in the dropdown on the right.)

Coming up on this blog, learn about the science that was performed on this flight as I follow up on the air samples that were collected.

June 15, 2015, 13:05 PDT

Because there are no spare Earths

Abbreviated version of the visualization 'Heating Up,' which depicts climate model projection of 21st century global temperatures. Credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio.

“Do we think about the aerosol propellant in our underarm deodorant every day?” Gavin Schmidt, climatologist and director of The Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), asked me. “I don’t think we even have aerosols anymore,” I answered, wondering where he was going with this.

Gavin Schmidt
Gavin Schmidt
“That’s the point,” he continued, “and nobody cares. Nobody cares where your energy comes from; nobody cares whether your car is electric or petrol. People confuse energy supply with where the energy is supplied from.” He was trying to make the point that as long as people have the things they want, it doesn’t matter, to the vast majority of us, how we get them. This means that as long as the light switch still turns on the lights, most people would barely notice if we were to shift from burning fossil fuels to energy sources with less impact on Earth’s climate (just as people don’t notice that ozone-depleting propellants aren’t used in aerosol cans any more).

I was eager to speak with Dr. Schmidt because of his passion for communicating climate science to public audiences on top of his work as a climatologist. Schmidt is a co-founder and active blogger at Real Climate and was also awarded the inaugural Climate Communications Prize, by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in 2011. “My goal in communicating,” he explained, “is a totally futile effort to raise the level of the conversation so that we actually discuss the things that matter.”

Since the mere mention of a computer model can cause an otherwise normal person’s face to glaze over, I thought Schmidt, a leader in climate simulations and Earth system modeling, would be the ideal candidate to explain one of the most important, yet probably one of the most misunderstood, instruments scientists have for studying Earth’s climate. See, people commonly confuse climate and weather, and this confusion is perhaps most pronounced when it comes to understanding the difference between a weather forecast and a climate simulation.

Numerical laboratory

Schmidt’s work routine is much like that of any other scientist. He spends a few months preparing experiments, then a few more months conducting the experiments, then a few more months refining and improving the experiments, then a few more months going back and looking at fine details, then a few more months … you get the idea. Climate scientists use complex computer simulations as numerical laboratories to conduct experiments because we don’t have a bunch of spare Earths just lying around. These simulations model Earth’s conditions as precisely as possible. “A single run can take three months on up on super computers,” Schmidt said. “For really long runs, it can take a year.” NASA scientists can reserve time for High-End Computing Capability at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility and/or the NASA Center for Climate Simulation to run simulations. Like an astronomer who reserves time on a large telescope to run her experiments, Schmidt books time on these computers to run his.

Schmidt asks the computer to calculate the weather in 20-minute time steps and see how it changes. Every 20 minutes it updates its calculation over hundred-year or even thousand-year periods in the past or the future. “The models that we run process about three to four years of simulation, going through every 20 minute time step, every real day.”

A typical climate simulation code is large, as in 700,000 lines of computer code large. For comparison, the Curiosity Rover required about 500,000 lines of code to autonomously descend safely on Mars, a planet 140 million miles away with a signal time delay of about 14 minutes. The size of a typical app, such as our Earth Now mobile app, is just over 6,000 lines of code. Climate simulations require such a large quantity of code because Earth’s climate is so extraordinarily complex. And, according to Schmidt, “Complexity is quite complex.”

Like a scientist who runs an experiment in a science lab, climate modelers want code that’s consistent from one experiment to another. So they spend most of their time developing that code, looking at code, improving code and fixing bugs.

The model output is compared to data and observations from the real world to build in credibility. “We rate the predictions on whether or not they’re skillful; on whether we can demonstrate they are robust.” When models are tested against the real world, we get a measure of how skillful the model is at reproducing things that have already happened. Then we can be more confident about the accuracy in predicting what’s going to happen. Schmidt wants to find out where the models have skill and where they provide useful information. For example, they’re not very useful for tornado statistics, but they're extremely useful on global mean temperature. According to Schmidt, the credible and consistently reliable predictions include ones that involve adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. “You consistently get increases in temperature and those increases are almost always greater over land than they are in the ocean. They’re always larger in the Arctic than in the mid-latitudes and always more in the northern hemisphere than the southern, particularly Antarctica. Those are very, very robust results.”

Lately, his team has been working on improving the code for sea ice dynamics to include the effects of brine pockets (very salty fluid within the ice matrix) as well as the wind moving the ice around. For example, to understand the timeline for Arctic sea ice loss, his team has to work on the different bits of code for the wind, the temperature, the ocean and the water vapor and include the way all these pieces intersect in the real world. After you improve the code, you can see the impact of those improvements.

I asked Schmidt what people’s behavior would look like “if they understood that burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, which causes global warming.” He replied, “People would start focusing on policies and processes that would reduce the amount of fossil fuels without ruining the economy or wrecking society.” Then he added, “I think, I hope! that people will get it before it’s too late.”

I hope so, too.

June 4, 2015, 14:08 PDT

Jason-3 and the Argonauts

Artist's concept of NASA's ocean-observing satellite fleet.

Artist's concept of NASA's ocean-observing satellite fleet.

Bring out the trumpeters! We’re preparing for another satellite launch. Woohoo! This time it’s Jason-3, an altimetry mission that will observe sea surface topography from space. It’s a legacy mission that continues the 23-year record of global sea level measurements started by TOPEX/Poseidon and carried on by Jason-1 and -2.

When I think of the word “legacy,” I normally become all melancholy ‘n’ stuff, because the word reminds me of what I was doing when those previous satellites went up and of all the people, science and stories that have influenced my life since. So this morning, on my drive to work, I tuned in to a 70s music radio station to funky disco my way out of my melancholy funkiness. (Take that, 80s music heads!)

But no, really, TOPEX/Poseidon was totally cool. (The acronym “TOPEX” comes from “TOPography EXperiment” and Poseidon is the Greek god of the sea; “Jason” is from Jason and the Argonauts, also from Greek mythology.) It launched in 1992 and was the first revolutionary precision oceanography satellite. It transformed the way we study the ocean, because the view from space is the only way to truly observe the vastness of the ocean on a global scale. Since TOPEX/Poseidon began collecting data in 1993, global sea level has risen 80 mm. That’s 3 inches in just over two decades. Holy moly! Now you see why it’s so important to have an uninterrupted stream of satellite data that extends far into the future.

Before TOPEX/Poseidon, there was Seasat, which was designed to find out if global satellite monitoring of Earth’s ocean was even feasible. It launched in 1978 and operated for just over 100 days. And yupity do dah, now we know that satellite observations are feasible.

Just like its predecessors, Jason-3 is a radar altimeter, an instrument that measures sea surface height by precisely knowing the satellite’s position in its orbit and by measuring the distance between itself and the top of the ocean. You see, the ocean surface is constantly changing, from waves, to tides, to El Niño, to sea level rise. As increased global warming causes more and more glacial ice and ice sheets to melt into Earth’s ocean, and as this same warming heats the ocean surface, causing the warmer water to expand and sea levels to rise higher, it’s absolutely crucial to have highly accurate, continuous global sea level measurements.

Furthermore, since the majority of Planet Earth is covered by ocean, and since water is exceptionally good at storing heat, the ocean will continue to play an enormous role in Earth’s long-term climate.

Jason-3 will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in July or August. I’ll be keeping you up-to-date on all of the goings on about the launch and its preparation. Meanwhile, you can find out more about Jason-3 and all of NASA's ocean surface topography missions here:


I look forward to your comments.


Jason-3 is an international partnership led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with participation from NASA, France's Centre Nationale d'Etudes Spatiales (the French space agency) and EUMETSAT, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. JPL built Jason-3's radiometer, GPS and laser reflector; is procuring the launch; and will help oversee the science team, which is responsible for ensuring the quality of the data.