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Laura Faye Tenenbaum

Laura Faye Tenenbaum is a science communicator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and teaches oceanography at Glendale Community College.

Nuking the sky
Unintended consequences
April 14, 2014
posted by Erik Conway & Amber Jenkins
14:15 PDT

Amber Jenkins

Erik Conway

The planet is warming and our climate changing. As political leaders around the world fail to reach agreement on how to curb the greenhouse-gas emissions that are the underlying problem, others are touting a more radical way to combat climate change: "geoengineering." The idea behind geoengineering is to deliberately tinker with the climate system to counteract man-made climate change. Schemes suggested include making clouds and crops brighter so that they reflect more sunlight back out into space, using high-altitude balloons to inject aerosols into the stratosphere and cool the Earth, or sucking carbon dioxide out of the air so that it can't trap heat and contribute to global warming. In the absence of a planet B, hacking the planet is a possible plan B. (See our "Just 5 questions" article for more info.)

Project Argus Project Argus, launched in 1958, was one of the first attempts at planetary engineering.

But the idea isn’t actually new. As James Fleming, a historian of science at Colby College, argues in his history of geoengineering, “Fixing the Sky,” one of the first attempts to engineer the planet was Project Argus in 1958. A top-secret military endeavor, Project Argus detonated atomic bombs in the upper atmosphere – about 500 kilometers (roughly 300 miles) up. The goal was to demonstrate that enemy radio and radar communications could be disrupted from half a world away, or enemy intercontinential ballistic missiles could be destroyed. In the process, the experiment also created a new radiation belt around the Earth that lasted for several years, disrupting the natural magnetosphere.

James Van Allen, discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts, initially waxed enthusiastic at Argus’ accomplishment: “The U.S. tests, already carried out successfully, undoubtedly constitute the greatest geophysical experiment ever conducted by man.” Argus was followed by other U.S. and Soviet high-altitude tests, lasting until 1962. But radio astronomers were not so happy, arguing: “No government has the right to change the environment in any significant way without prior international study and agreement.” Argus had interfered with their science.

Van Allen later regretted his participation in these experiments, and above-ground nuclear weapons testing was finally banned in 1963, ending the career of this kind of geoengineering.

The history of these interventions and the ensuing protests serve as a cautionary tale for today’s geoengineers and, indeed, the organizations that will be tasked with regulating any future geoengineering. While some are keen to jump in with a quick and possibly profitable fix to climate change, others see a field fraught with technical, moral and political problems. As Fleming writes“Geoengineering is in fact untested and dangerous. We don’t understand it, we can’t test it on smaller than planetary scales, and we don’t have the political capital, wisdom, or will to govern it. Planetary tinkering is not “cheap”, as some economists claim, since the side effects are unknown … Most poignantly, by turning the blue sky milky white or the blue oceans soupy green, by attenuating sunlight – and with it starlight, and by putting bureaucrats and technocrats in charge of a global thermostat, geoengineering will alter fundamental human relationships to nature.”

 

Related content:

Just 5 questions: Hacking the planet
Building a better soybean for a hot, dry, hungry world

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April 10, 2014
11:07 PDT
We get it—the climate is changing. So what can we do about it?

When confronting the issue of climate change, it helps to remember the beauty of our home planet from space.  This image from NASA's Beautiful Earth gallery shows the view over Western Australia on May 12, 2013, captured by the Landsat-8 satellite.

Readers of this blog have made quite a few thoughtful comments. To show my appreciation, I’m going to respond to a common request. Lots of people are finally understanding the complexities of the science behind climate change and are starting to face the enormity of the problem, so now they want to know about solutions, what to do about climate change.

Honestly, if I had the solution to the problem of climate change, then I would be way too busy actualizing that solution to have time left to write this blog. Also, at NASA, our focus is on gathering the latest and most accurate measurements in order to give scientists and the public the most complete picture possible of our changing planet.

What I can offer, though, is to share a three-step program I’ve come up with and use on a daily basis. These three actions alone won’t stop climate change, but they can help us to move toward a more positive impact on our environment. Also—let’s face it—climate change is a bummer.  We need something to keep us out of despair, something to help us face the challenge.

Here are the three steps I recommend to help you connect with planet Earth and stay strong while facing the reality of climate change: First, nourish your relationship with nature every day. Second, take personal responsibility for what you can control as an individual. Third, link up with others, because there is power in numbers.

In honor of Earth Day (coming up April 22), I'm going to go into detail about the first step in today's blog. Check back again soon for the next two installments.  

Step 1: Connect with nature

Earth Day represents a yearly reminder for all of us to make a personal connection with our planet. At NASA we’re encouraging everyone to go outside and take a #GlobalSelfie. You can find out more info here.

But you can also remember your relationship with Earth every day of the year. This might sound corny to you, but it has helped me a lot. I believe that if more people would spend just a moment every day being present with the natural world, it would make them more inclined to care for it.

You can connect with Earth each time you go outside. For just one moment, stop rushing, stop thinking, stop the internal dialogue, and see the trees, see the plants, see the sky—even if it breaks your heart, because sometimes the natural world can be sad. 

Don’t turn away from it. This is easy if you happen to live in a beautiful countryside, but even in the largest city, you can still find a tiny plant breaking its way through the concrete. Something that small can be your reminder to pause and connect.

Working at NASA, I spend much of my time looking at images of the Earth, and it’s that view from space that gives me a global perspective of our planet. It also gives me a unique sense of intimacy with our world. Just because an event occurs on the other side of the planet doesn’t mean it’s not my home. The Earth is our home. And this is exactly what you can see when you look at the view from space.

Go look at satellite images of Earth for yourself in our Beautiful Earth and Images of Change galleries (the latter is also available as an iPad app). See with your own eyes, and make your own connection. Do that every day.

Thanks for your comments and for sharing your thoughts.

Laura

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April 2, 2014
10:31 PDT
The zombie apocalypse is nigh

A scene from HBO’s "Vice: Greenland Is Melting."

Gavin Schmidt, a colleague of mine at NASA, was interviewed about the severity of climate change on an episode of HBO’s "Vice" that also covered the topic of Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

“If we don’t cut carbon emissions by 80 percent,” Schmidt said, “we’re talking about a scenario where sea level rise is accelerating.” He went on to point out that, “our emissions are going up, not down.”

HBO’s "Vice" is honest and raw, which is the exception, not the norm. Hard-hitting, accurate information about the actual severity of the climate problem is practically non-existent in the media.

The program scared me, and part of me wishes that the rest of society would finally get alarmed about climate change, too, if only it would help move us towards action. Yet I wonder how many people even managed to view this show.

Like many climate scientists and climate science communicators must feel, I’m sick with frustration. I want to shout, “Hey, people of Earth, pay attention! We have collectively changed the planet; it’s a done deal!"

But I also wonder if having another fear over which to get freaked out is what our society needs. We’re so copiously plastered with gun violence and war that the term “prepper” was recently coined to refer to people preparing for Doomsday. (No wonder zombie apocalypse is the new black.) So climate change gets thrown on the heap with pandemics and nuclear annihilations, and we all scoff, “whatever.”

On top of all that, people I know are freaking out over bankruptcy, foreclosure and barely making their rent. How dare I tell them that their personal economic crisis is less dire, less real than the global crisis of climate change?

Last week I presented and organized ClimatePalooza 2014, a collaboration between NASA’s JPL and USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism that hopes to foster conversation about climate change. We purposely tried to make the event sound less frightening and more inviting. We had music and comedy sketches lined up alongside science talks, booths and discussions about taking action. Yet I question this more light-hearted approach as much as I question a fear-based one.

Climate change is upon us, and it's happening now. The time for debates and fun times has passed.

When creating a message, it’s exhausting trying to find a balance and getting viewers to pay attention without scaring them away.  It’s exhausting trying to make a difference. I already have a fuel-efficient vehicle and solar panels, I already write for a climate change website. I walk more, buy local, compost. What more can a person do by themselves? I know we all individually and collectively could be doing more. What do you think?

As always, I look forward to reading your comments.

Laura

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March 13, 2014
11:02 PDT
Getting in deep with denialism

Illustration of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program)

"Do you believe in the Pacific Garbage Patch?"

That was what a woman asked me over the phone, and it left me speechless. I was getting ready to give a talk at a nearby plastics manufacturing and recycling company. I give a lot of public presentations on the subject of climate change; to prepare, I have a conversation with the event organizers to discuss laptop plugs, parking arrangements, bookmarks to hand out, etc. I was expecting to have one of these conversations last week when I spoke with the event organizer, so you can imagine my surprise when she asked that question.

"Wait a minute!" I thought. A snarky retort popped into my head along the lines of “Believing? Believing is what people think about the tooth fairy or Santa Claus; scientists base their understanding of the world on evidence.” I managed to mumble "um, um" instead.

Climate change deniers are a frequent and persistent part of my reality, so I’m used to receiving rebukes, arguments and all sorts of unusual questions during my public speeches and on this website. But there are Garbage Patch deniers, too? Really?

I shook my head a couple of times to stop the mental tailspin and I went with the following response: “For the last thirteen years I’ve taught college level oceanography courses. During that time, my lectures about the Garbage Patch have gone from half an hour to almost three hours based on student interest and demand to know more.” I continued by telling her that I was “unprepared for an impromptu debate on ocean pollution, as I was expecting the usual bookmark/parking/computer plug chat.”

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised that a plastics company, even one that was interested in recycling, would dispute the existence of plastic pollution. I listened wearily as she tried to convince me that there weren’t any photos of the garbage, even though I know there are, and went on about jobs taking priority over environmental issues.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t visible in satellite photos, because much of the plastic floats underneath the sea surface and has been broken down into bits like the ones in this jar. (Although some ocean trash is as large as a refrigerator!) I took this photo when I met with a boat captain who collected the plastic bits with a net. There are pieces of plastic that form a swath across the Pacific and all the other oceans, causing problems for both plants and animals (including humans). All living things depend on healthy oceans for survival.

Plastic bits

To learn more about plastic pollution, you can check out the links below. It's good to understand the world around you.

NOAA: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Smithsonian page on the Pacific Garbage Patch

As always, I appreciate your comments.

Laura

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March 6, 2014
09:13 PST

This video shows NASA and JAXA's GPM satellite as seen in NASA's Eyes on the Earth 3D web application.

Last week there was much excitement over the launch of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite. Launches are big and showy; they get our attention, but it’s the stuff that happens after the launch that’s really interesting. So now that GPM is safely in space orbiting Earth, we’ll look forward to getting our hands on the data and sharing it with you.

While we were building and launching the actual GPM satellite, we were also building a virtual satellite to launch into cyberspace, and we made it as realistic as possible. So, while NASA's engineers control and drive the spacecraft, and scientists look closely at the data and use it to learn more about precipitation patterns around the world, people like you also get a chance to follow the spacecraft on NASA’s popular Eyes on the Earth 3D interactive portal.

Every virtual NASA satellite is a high-end photorealistic rendering created by a 3D art director. They all have accurate telemetry, which means you can view the satellites as they orbit Earth, zoom in and look at them closely, or access real time data from your keyboard. Last week I sat down with Kevin Hussey, the guy who came up with the notion of being able to fly next to a satellite because he “thought it would be exceptionally cool." When I asked if he saw himself as a cowboy with the satellite as his bronco, he got all giddy with laughter. But he would admit only to “being an armchair astronaut,” even though I still think he secretly wants to ride one.

He steered the conversation back to reality, explaining that as the visualization technology improves, we give people a very realistic feel for what it looks like being in space with the Earth satellites, which have a beautiful vantage point.

"Each one has a different personality. They have different color foils on [their] instruments. Some emit energy and record reflection. Some are static, and some are dynamic. GPM has a spinning antenna."

Although the satellites have fixed orbits, he said, "they may be moved or their orbits may degrade. So, to be accurate about the location, we correct the orbits every day, or several times a day."

For Suzy user at home, there’s definitely the "cool" factor, Kevin said. You can track GPM and see it flying from your desktop today on Eyes on the Earth 3D. Then after the "science team has a chance to verify the accuracy and validate the GPM data, [the visualization team will] work together [with the scientists] to agree upon a color scale and display the data" for you to look at as well.

As always, I appreciate your comments.

Laura

GPM is part of NASA's Earth Right Now campaign, a series of five Earth science missions that will be launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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February 26, 2014
15:53 PST

Engineers working on GPM

GPM in clean room

GPM nearly ready to go

Last chance to feast your eyes on NASA's Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite before it leaves our planet. After today's launch we'll have no more photos like these. Instead, we'll be looking forward to abundant information about clouds and rain that we can share with you.

Happy launch day,

Laura

GPM is part of NASA's Earth Right Now campaign, a series of five Earth science missions that will be launched into space in the same year, opening new and improved remote eyes to monitor our changing planet.

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February 20, 2014
13:55 PST
Jazzed about GPM

Dalia Kirschbaum wears a bunny suit in front of NASA's Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite, scheduled for launch Thursday, Feb. 27.

NASA’s Earth Science satellite Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) is about to launch next week and, believe me, all of us at NASA are totally psyched. I paid tribute to the event last week by making and eating a health-food model of the GPM satellite.

Dalia Kirschbaum, application scientist for the mission, is way cooler than I am, though. She actually busted out a NASA bunny suit and went inside the clean room at Goddard Space Flight Center as the instrument was being built.

“It was pretty awesome to be next to such a big satellite,” she told me as we were chatting the other day. “With its solar array unfolded, it’s the size of a small corporate jet and is the largest satellite ever built and assembled at Goddard.”

Clean room and bunny suit aside, what Dalia is most excited about is getting her hands on the data. “I need this data; we all need this data,” she said. For the past 16 years, she and many other NASA scientists have relied on amazing tropical rainfall data from NASA’s TRMM satellite. GPM goes a step further, though, by expanding rainfall measurements beyond the tropics.

“GPM is so cool,” Dalia went on. “It sees precipitation in 3D through the clouds from the ground all the way to the top of the atmosphere.”

Dalia’s area of expertise is in landslides, which occur on saturated hills. They are frequent, damaging, and a “really big deal,” causing lots of damage and blocking roads for days. A landslide can be as small as a retaining wall in your backyard or a large one that kills thousands of people at once.

As an application scientist for GPM, part of Dalia’s job will be to help take GPM satellite data and make sure weather forecasters, agricultural communities and disaster response teams know how to access it. She’s been talking up GPM to a variety of audiences, from elementary students to the general public, explaining with enthusiasm all the reasons why NASA does what it does and how people all around the world are impacted by a seemingly random satellite.

Dalia Kirschbaum will be co-hosting live coverage of the launch on NASA TV. Join her at www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 1:07 EST. Live coverage starts one hour before launch.

Laura


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February 10, 2014
16:31 PST
Food for scientific thought

A nutritionally correct GPM model. 

NASA’s new Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory is slated to launch later this month, so when I first got wind of instructions for making an edible model of the GPM satellite, my interest was piqued. This blog is supposed to be about connecting to regular people, I thought, so I’ll make an edible model, take a photo of it, eat it and then write about it. Sounds awesome, right? I went about hunting down the instructions and found them here.

GPM with marshmallows, pretzels, frosting, and graham crackers
As you can see from the photo, the example in the instructions is made of marshmallows, pretzels, frosting and graham crackers. At the risk of sounding like a sanctimonious health snob from California, I don’t buy or eat foods containing artificial ingredients or empty calories. To me, junk food is cloyingly sweet, nasty and yuck! I wondered whether parents would endorse this type of food. If we are to appreciate the role of NASA satellites in understanding Earth’s climate, we also have to appreciate our role in responding to scientific information. Our choices about what we buy, what we put in our mouths and what we teach our children have global consequences.

The instructions for making the model said that they were suggestions, which to me meant that I could make an edible model of NASA’s new GPM satellite with whatever ingredients I wanted. So I decided to make a model that I would actually be willing to eat without wasting any food. You can decide for yourselves if it looks nasty, scary or yummy. My family and I ended up eating all of it, and I was surprised by how much I learned about the instrument by having to look at it so carefully.

I encourage you to get creative and make your own edible model of NASA’s new GPM satellite with whatever foods you see fit and to voice your fair and honest opinions in the comments.

Laura

P.S. Here are my GPM model ingredients: The dual-frequency precipitation radar is mashed potato; the avionics and propulsion module is turkey walnut meatloaf decorated with kale; the microwave imager is yam, cucumber and orange; the high gain antenna is cherry tomato; and the solar array is made of seaweed. Some of the vegetables were harvested from my own organic garden.

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You probably already knew that NASA scientists spend a lot of their time analyzing data and mulling over results. But there’s a lot more to being a NASA scientist than that. One of the coolest things about the job is getting a chance to go on camera to talk to the public, share the latest research, and get people excited and involved. This year is especially exciting because of NASA’s five new Earth missions.

So, just like you would, we pose, primp, preen, prep and PRACTICE so that we’ll be ready for our moment in the spotlight. TV stations access live feeds directly from NASA, which means that we have to learn how to connect to an audience we can’t see.

 Alone on the set, Michelle Thaller of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center communicates through the camera lens to a TV station audience she can’t see. Alone on the set, Michelle Thaller of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center communicates through the camera lens to a TV station audience she can’t see.

For broadcasts using a computer camera, we get together and give each other feedback, such as making sure that our faces are centered in the frame.

Clockwise: Andrew Miller, Travis Kidd, Jennifer Shoemaker and Lauren Ward. Clockwise: Andrew Miller, Travis Kidd, Jennifer Shoemaker and Lauren Ward.

And when the lights come up and the camera goes on, we stare straight into that lens and smile.

Oceanographer Josh Willis in a video about the ocean&#39;s heat capacity.&nbsp;Source: <a href="http://climate.nasa.gov/climate_reel/OceansClimateChange640360" target="_blank">NASA-JPL</a> Oceanographer Josh Willis in a video about the ocean's heat capacity. Source: NASA-JPL

So be sure to keep an eye out for one of our NASA scientists coming to a screen near you in 2014.

I look forward to reading your comments.

Laura

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January 29, 2014
15:02 PST
NASA's best kept secret is out

The best part of my job as a science communicator at JPL is talking to people—all kinds of people. I often give speeches to audiences large and small about NASA’s mission to study our home planet. I’ve spoken at schools, professional conferences, and business events and in one-on-one conversations with family and friends, or at parties. At some point in the exchange I always ask the same question. It’s like my own personal survey that I’ve been conducting since 2007, the year I started working here. I ask them, “Do you know that NASA studies planet Earth? You know, our planet, from the vantage point of space?”

When I first began carrying out my little unofficial survey, typically only one or two people in a large group knew that NASA does Earth science and has satellites that study our home planet. Sometimes no one knew.

But I continued. I kept asking that same question to all the different groups of people I came in contact with and eventually the answers started to shift. The change happened slowly; sometimes there were only a few "yeses"; maybe one of two hands would go up in a crowd. Every year that went by, and every time I spoke, a few more hands would go up. More heads would nod and more people would say, “Oh yeah, I knew that NASA studies Earth.” I wondered if NASA’s outreach was working.

For a quite a while the results hovered around 5-10 percent of any group who acknowledged that they knew about NASA Earth missions. Then, sometime in 2012, it jumped to about half of the people I talked to. Wow, that was a big deal for me. I shared the news with my team at JPL.

And finally—you guessed it—for the first time, in the fall of 2013, every time I asked that question, the answer was “yes!” More people know that NASA studies Earth from space right now. I think that might be because people care more about our planet than ever before

So, to any of you people of Earth reading this: thank you. Thank you for noticing us at NASA, thank you for joining our mission.

Now, I’ve got another question for you. Did you know that NASA currently has 16 Earth orbiting science satellites and is preparing to launch five more? I wonder how long it will take to get a “yes” answer to that one.

Laura

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