“I’m looking at 10 glaciers and I’m sitting on one,” said Dr. Heidi Roop of the University of Rochester over satellite phone. “I’m looking at a landscape that’s been here for millions of years unaltered by people.” Roop had called me from Taylor Glacier, an outflow of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which flows down through Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys. I’m looking at a mountain that no human has ever touched, ever. This is a landscape where it feels like humans shouldn’t be. There are no animal trails, no trees. There’s rock and ice and us.”
Roop and the rest of the eight-person team, which included one driller, two scientists, three Ph.D. candidates and a camp cook/manager, had come to drill for ice cores at Taylor Glacier because of its unique configuration. Drilling ice cores is a technique climate scientists use to collect samples of trace gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide that have been trapped in air bubbles in the layers of polar ice.
Air bubbles make up 10 percent of glacier ice. That may sound incredible, but it's true. In fact, teams of scientists spend entire careers studying these ice cores to learn about Earth’s atmosphere. In a traditional ice core, the ice is horizontally layered. The surface layer is the youngest, made of recent snow with modern atmosphere filling tiny spaces between snowflakes. Ice core science teams drill vertically down through time. The deeper you drill, the further back in time you go. (The deepest borehole, at Vostok, Antarctica, is more than 3,600 meters deep.) According to Dr. Peter Neff, a glaciologist who was also on the call, “We now have a very good understanding of past greenhouse gas concentrations because there’s been so much research since the 1990s, especially methane, for example. The signal of methane concentration is globally representative and we know from these ice cores the heartbeat of methane through the past 800,000 years with high accuracy.”
Scientists drilling for ice cores head to Antarctica because it’s the cleanest place on the planet. (There’s so much more pollution and dust in the Northern Hemisphere.) “We’re not studying Antarctica itself, although Antarctica is a huge player in the global climate system," Neff said. "But rather we’re learning things about global climate that we can learn only in Antarctica. It’s so far away, yet it holds clues that inform our understanding of the rest of the world.”
Traveling back in time
Taylor Glacier is an unusual place on a continent that’s full of the unusual, which is why this group of scientists traveled there. The glacier flow has essentially tipped ice layers on their sides, so to travel back in time the team can simply walk across the glacier instead of having to drill deep down. Time is stretched out north to south, so “as you walk northward you’re going forward in time, from ice that’s 80,000 years old, past the coldest part of the last glacial period 20,000 years ago (when it was so cold and dry there was less vegetation, so the atmosphere was dusty), all the way to ice that’s only 8,000 years old,” Neff explained. The team also took their Ski-Doo down the glacier about 10 kilometers to a site where they previously found 125,000 to 130,000 year old ice, which formed during the last interglacial period—the last time global climate was close to today’s warm temperatures. Other ice core records suggest that this time period was actually several degrees warmer than today, making it our best analogue for the warm conditions we’re headed towards.
Because the twists and folds of Taylor Glacier bring old ice to the surface, scientists only need to drill a few meters deep to collect very large samples from specific time periods. The team can core down into, say, the transition at the end of the last glacial period 20,000 years ago, when the climate system shifted back towards warmer temperatures—with some rapid climate change “speed bumps” along the way. The team hopes that gathering large enough samples of gases from this time period will help us understand what drives large climate shifts, what the real rates of change are and if we’re headed towards any tipping points. “We can ask more specific questions because we can get much bigger samples, which gives us room to unlock minute details in the chemistry of gases trapped in the ice,” Neff said. “For some work, we’re literally chain-sawing a meter down into the ice and breaking it out with a big metal bar and taking out samples that are a meter long by 30 centimeters wide that weigh like 250 pounds,” Roop added. “You should see my biceps right now.”
24 hours of daylight
Although there is 24 hours of daylight during the summer in Antarctica, the drill team wakes up in the middle of the night when the sun moves behind a mountain range and creates a shadow for about five hours. “The sun just does a big circle around us, but the shadow makes it a lot colder, which keeps the drill from freezing into the glacier,” Neff explained. Then Roop added, “When the sun goes behind the mountain, the glacier crackles and pops—loud pops like gunshots—because of the temperature drop.”
Once they collect the ice cores, some are put into a pressure chamber under vacuum to remove all the modern air and are then melted. The gas from the ancient bubbles is released as the ice cores melt, and then gets carefully pulled into sample canisters, which are about the size of a SCUBA tank.
Near the end of this field campaign, the team will pull everything out to waiting helicopters using a big pink sled towed behind their Ski-Doo. The team will fly the ancient gases extracted from the ice cores to McMurdo Station before heading back to the University of Rochester Petrenko Lab, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography Severinghaus Laboratory, and the Oregon State University Ice Core and Quarternary Geochemistry Lab. The Ski-Doo will eventually hitch a ride from the helicopter as well, in a sling load dangling from a big wire cable tethered to the bottom of the helicopter. “Antarctica is a really emotional place," Roop said. "It’s a rare, rare, rare, rare opportunity to go where people don’t live, where people can’t live. This is the edge of where humans should be. There’s no trash, no animal tracks, no power lines, not even a bird; nothing to give you scale. It’s like the exhilaration of breaking a rule, poking a boundary. And there’s something thrilling about that.”
Find out more about the University of Rochester Ice Core Expedition here.
Thank you for reading.
“The moment the satellite separated from the rocket got me feeling emotional,” Dr. Josh Willis, lead project scientist for the Jason-3 mission, told me. I imagined the satellite emerging from the nosecone of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and unfurling its solar panels 830 miles above where we were standing near the bar at the Jason-3 launch after-party. Seeing a NASA science dude with a crisp shirt, black suit jacket and—can you believe it—cufflinks was heartwarming. I recognized his dad, his wife, his in-laws nearby. My husband was there, too, along with most of our peers, all part of an odd little NASA ocean sciences extended family.
When Willis told me he “had affection” for the Jason-3 satellite, I felt relief; glad that I wasn’t the only one who’d been anthropomorphizing. He said that the French engineers from CNES, the French Space Agency, who were responsible for connecting the satellite to the rocket, had drawn a pair of eyes on the nitrogen storage bags used for sealing the satellite to prevent rust. “It looked like it was alive,” he said.
Unless you’re a total whack, your affection for flight hardware builds up over time. And Willis’ work with satellites that measure sea surface height goes back to TOPEX/Poseidon, the great granddaddy of ocean surface topography, which launched in 1992 when he was a graduate student. “Back then, the data was cool and interesting and was really accurate. It did what it was supposed to do, which was amazing to me.” TOPEX/Poseidon was originally designed as a 5-year mission to measure currents. “In the beginning, it wasn’t obvious that these satellites would measure climate change. It took years to ensure that the satellites were accurate enough to measure global sea level change, and, of course, now they’re the most important tool for measuring global warming.”
After 23 years of data, we’re continuing the series with the launch of Jason-3, the fourth member of the family. “That’s a huge triumph of science and engineering,” he explained. “NASA always wants to do new things, but for climate science, we really need to do the same thing over and over. That’s a different type of job.” I looked around at our spouses and thought about how I explain marriage to my single friends: You can get a lot of interesting things from a long-term commitment. Willis agreed. It’s a whole career, going the distance, not just one conquest after the other.
“It took years and years for the entire science team, which is a couple hundred people looking at this data year in and year out, to feel confident that we were measuring more than currents. Everything has to be perfect to measure global sea level rise.” And over that 23-year period, while the scientists’ abilities to use the data improved, global sea level rose an inch or two, which, sad but true, made it easier to measure.
Jason-3 launched just in time to observe the 2016 El Niño with its many extreme sea levels, storms and high winds in the ocean. The Jason-2 and Jason-3 satellites will fly right next to each other, separated by 60 seconds, and the calibration will happen over a wide range of different conditions. When I asked Willis if this year’s El Niño is bigger than the one in 1997-98, he said, “The water at its peak temperature in the Pacific this time is warmer than the peak temperature in 97-98. But what most people care about is rainfall, and by that measure, we’ll just have to wait and see. We’ve got a few more months before El Niño clobbers us here in the U.S. Plus, we’ve had another 18 years of global warming.”
“Let’s face it, the ocean dominates everything,” he continued. “Two-thirds of the planet’s surface is rising. That’s the story of global warming. You have to have a satellite to see that, and the Jasons do what nothing else can.”
As always, I welcome your comments.
TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1 were cooperative missions between NASA and the French space agency, CNES. Additional partners in the Jason-2 mission included NOAA and Eumetsat. Jason-3 continues the international cooperation, with NOAA and Eumetsat leading the efforts, along with partners NASA and CNES.
The time has come, once again, to prepare for that thing we at NASA are best known for: launching satellites into space. And to commemorate this awesome occasion, I created, once again, an edible model.
This time, though, is a bit different. This time it’s Jason-3, and I kind of have a soft spot for it. See, Jason-3 is an oceanography satellite, and to me, the ocean will always be the most important thing in the world. Scheduled to launch January 17 at 10:42 a.m. PST, Jason-3 follows its predecessors, TOPEX/Poseidon (1992), Jason-1 (2001) and Jason-2 (2008, the first launch I ever saw), to continue measuring global ocean surface topography – or variations in sea level.
Gathering highly accurate sea-level measurements allows us to understand both global and regional changes in sea level rise, ocean circulation patterns and, of course, El Niño. (Yup, look outside. It’s raining its butt off, just like NASA scientists predicted it would, based on Jason-2 data.)
Also, by having a long, uninterrupted time series of data, we get the opportunity to better understand the long-term implications of ocean-warming due to climate change.
As usual, I made this model out of food I actually eat. The spacecraft bus is made of seafood risotto: rice, stock, butter, cream, clams, calamari, scallops, broccoli and saffron. The altimeter, which measures sea level, wave heights and wind speed, is tiger shrimp. The microwave radiometer, which measures water vapor and helps ensure instrument accuracy, is a clam shell. The GPS, which tells us the satellite’s exact position, is bell pepper. The DORIS instrument and the Laser Retroreflector Array, which also provide satellite location info, are green beans. The solar array is nori seaweed.
Because I care so much about our ocean, and because much of the seafood around the world is unsustainably caught, I always use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app when selecting seafood. The app gives recommendations for choosing seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that have less environmental impact.
BTW, yes, I ate the model. It paired quite nicely with a buttery Chardonnay.
Thanks for reading,
TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1 were cooperative missions between NASA and the French space agency, CNES. Additional partners in the Jason-2 mission included NOAA and Eumetsat. Jason-3 continues the international cooperation, with NOAA and Eumetsat leading the efforts, along with partners NASA and CNES.
It’s the winter solstice, the time of year when the Northern Hemisphere is the most tilted away from the sun and we get our shortest day and longest night. It’s a time to rest, to sit quietly and to reflect on the events of the past year. Most assuredly, 2015 will again be another record-breaking year for Earth’s climate. And while it’s true that you and I have probably shared many feelings of disappointment about climate change every year, year after year, recently I’ve noticed a glimmer of hope.
So let’s take a moment on this dark day to look towards the light of our shared future and be hopeful.
Here are a couple of things that made me feel optimistic over the past few weeks.
- COP 21 — On Dec. 12, 195 countries adopted the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The agreement aims to limit our planet's average global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Read the full document here. And while we all know that there is obviously much more work to do, the fact that we have some movement in the right direction is motivating.
- American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference — Last week 22.5 thousand Earth and space scientists from 114 countries attended AGU in San Francisco, California. This conference is where everyone comes to talk about their work and is also a great opportunity for the public to access the latest important science. I was inspired by a talk I heard by Susan Hassol of Climate Communication. Social psychology, she explained, tells us we’re more motivated by thinking that we’re not starting from scratch, that we’re already on our way. She pointed out that 84 percent of Americans support clean energy, for example. “Not only do we have to feel hopeful, but we have to speak hopefully because people are motivated by hope.” Hassol went on to point out that the cost of solar energy is falling, while the capacity of both solar and wind energy is rising. Yes, yes, yes, we are on our way.
- A new website, Climate Feedback, is poised to help scientists peer review the web by annotating directly into online media. For a person like me, who writes about climate science for a living, it’s been devastating to see inaccuracies and confusion on this subject sometimes perpetuated by the media. The possibility of the scientific community being able to provide publishers, authors and readers with feedback about the scientific credibility of their content could be a real game changer. This has the potential to shift the public towards a much better understanding of the evidence around climate science. I’m so nervously optimistic about this one, I can’t even say.
As this year comes to a close, I want to thank you for reading, sharing and joining together, and I’m so looking forward to our shared future.
Think back to when you were a kid imagining what you were going to be when you grew up. You dreamt that someday, somehow, you would make a difference, a contribution, that your work would be meaningful in the world. If you accomplished this today, how pumped would you be?
“This is going to sound really cheesy and lame,” NASA oceanographer Michelle Gierach told me over a Skype call from COP21 in Paris, “but I just get a sense of pride being from the U.S. and being a cool NASA representative and seeing people get excited about what we do. In my day-to-day job, I sometimes forget how much Americans and international people from everywhere love to know what we’re doing. It reinvigorates a sense of pride in NASA's work.”
Because of the nine-hour time difference, I was barely awake for our call, and through my morning mental blur I wondered for a moment if the glee in her voice had something to do with the fact that I’m a fantastic person and she was thrilled to be speaking with me, or perhaps she was hopped up on chocolate. “They give you chocolate bars every day!” she squealed. “I’m not lying, and it’s really good chocolate.”
But it was the conference, COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, that had her all giddy. You see, after so many years of stagnation, resistance and even moving backwards, finally, finally there seems to be movement toward global action against climate change. Yes, it’s baby steps, and yes, there’s more work to do, “but some movement is significant,” she stressed. “I’ll take it.”
All of us are hungry for something positive. Always. Especially now, since most of the news lately has been such a total bummer. A positive message around climate could be that bump in optimism that we all need right now.
The U.N. COP21 meeting in Paris began on Nov. 30, and by this Friday, Dec. 11, 195 member nations hope to reach a unanimous agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or even lower and provide financial support to developing nations so they can bypass fossil fuels.
It’s hard not to feel optimistic. Part of you wants to get your hopes up, but you also don’t want to be disappointed, because for so many years there’s been so much disappointment. Then there’s that part of you that says, This time is different. This time we can do it. Gierach told me that she felt an energy about reaching an outcome at COP21. The overall vibe is “completely optimistic, everybody wants to do something, everybody knows we have to do something. There’s a 'let’s do it' kind of attitude.”
Hyper about the hyperwall
Last week we’d spoken about her upcoming trip. She had conflicted feelings due to the recent events in Paris and was concerned about a heightened state of worry and icky vibes. “As a NASA representative,” she explained, “my role is to show what NASA is doing with regards to climate change, even though I’m not a delegate or a policy maker. I was so excited to go, and now I’m just not so excited about it anymore.” But what a difference one week and a few thousand miles made. From the conference her voice sounded triumphant: “Everybody here wants to show that it’s not going to stop what they’re trying to do here. It hasn’t stopped it at all.”
Gierach also told me she was “super excited that this time around it finally seems people are listening. People see that the oceans are part of a massive system and actually are a significant reason we haven’t had a more extreme temperature rise. That message seems to be getting out there.” She’s been talking about the oceans every day on NASA’s hyperwall, an ultra-high resolution visualization that combines nine computer monitors into a giant screen that plays animations in tandem.
On Dec. 3, she joined a panel called “Oceans under pressure” to discuss the following main points of consensus that we can see from satellites:
- The sea surface temperature record shows that the ocean is warming, which clearly impacts Arctic sea ice reduction, the different types of sea ice, and ice sheet reduction.
- Sea level rise is not equal around the globe; for example, the western tropical Pacific has much higher sea level rise than the eastern equatorial Pacific.
- It's crucial to keep monitoring the global ocean, so NASA has a suite of future satellites planned, such as Jason-3 and SWOT.
And because a significant portion of the conference is dedicated to carbon emissions, she’s also talking about the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere and how carbon dioxide transfers between the two.
Just before we hung up, she added, with power in her voice like a chant or rally call, “Yeah, we’re here and we’re going to do something. We’re not just speaking; we’re actually acting and showing that we’re acting.”
Watch the live stream from the U.S. Center at COP-21 in Paris here.
Watch the "Oceans Under Pressure" panel with panelists Jean-Pierre Gattuso, IDDRI/CNRS; Jean-Pierre Gattuso, IDDRI/CNRS; Alexander MacDonald, NOAA; Michelle Gierach, NASA; Cassandra deYoung, FAO here.
Thank you so much for reading,
P.S. Michelle was totally inspired by President Obama’s speech and said, “Regardless of what people may think, he is trying to make the world a better place. It made me extremely proud to be part of the United States and have him as our president.” Watch the speech here.
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.
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.
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.”
Learn more about NASA’s efforts to better understand the carbon and climate challenge.
I look forward to your comments.
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.
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.
And thank you so much for reading.
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.
I look forward to your comments.
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
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.
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.