July 14, 2016, 14:45 PDT

Shuffle and flow: Where does carbon come from, and where does it go?

Atmospheric Carbon and Transport (ACT) - America

ACT-America, or Atmospheric Carbon and Transport – America, will conduct five airborne campaigns across three regions in the eastern United States to study the transport and fluxes of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane.

ACT-America, or Atmospheric Carbon and Transport – America, will conduct five airborne campaigns across three regions in the eastern United States to study the transport and fluxes of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane.

The average amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s global atmosphere is 400 parts per million (ppm), but according to Ken Davis, Atmospheric Carbon and Transport - America (ACT-America) principal investigator, areas near agriculture like cornfields can consistently run about 10 ppm lower in the summertime. That’s because terrestrial ecosystems like trees and corn suck about a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere.

Thank you, trees and corn.

But wouldn’t you like to know exactly where this is happening, and by how much? Does the amount of carbon dioxide taken up by farms and forests change across seasons, across weather patterns? And even more important, will these ecosystems still be able to continue pulling our carbon pollution out of the atmosphere for us 50 years from now, especially if our climate changes unfavorably for these biological systems? Will dead trees start releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere? It’s as if the forests and farms are “Get Out of Jail Free" cards and we’re not sure for how long the free pass will be good.

It’s as if the forests and farms are “Get Out of Jail Free" cards and we’re not sure for how long the free pass will be good.

See, scientists have been measuring carbon dioxide and methane on a global basis. But we’d like to understand the mechanisms that are driving biological sinks and sources regionally. And we’d like to measure these greenhouse gases so that we can know if and when we’ve succeeded in reducing our emissions.

Davis explained that right now, most of our knowledge about regional sources of methane and carbon dioxide comes from a ground-based network of highly calibrated instruments on roughly 100 towers across North America. Yet being able to understand the regional sources and sinks of these two greenhouse gases is crucial to being able to predict and respond to the consequences of a changing climate.

“We don’t have all the data we need? That’s unbelievable,” I said, shocked. How is that even possible in 2016?” But Davis kept repeating: “No, we definitely don’t have enough data density.” Indeed, we take our data for granted, even as we continue burning fossil fuels.

The Atmospheric Carbon and Transport–America, or ACT-America, campaign will observe greenhouse gas transport with instruments on two NASA aircraft including the C-130H from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia.
The Atmospheric Carbon and Transport–America, or ACT-America, campaign will observe greenhouse gas transport with instruments on two NASA aircraft including the C-130H from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia.
That’s where NASA’s ACT-America comes in. ACT-America is an airborne Earth Venture Suborbital mission that will measure sources and sinks of carbon dioxide and methane over three swaths of the United States during all four seasons for five years from NASA’s modified C-130 and B-200 aircraft. The planes are fitted with remote sensing instruments, including a CO2 Lidar, cavity ring-down spectrometers to measure carbon dioxide and methane “in situ” on the aircraft and flasks to capture air samples around the plane.

The Atmospheric Carbon and Transport–America, or ACT-America, campaign will observe greenhouse gas transport with instruments on two NASA aircraft including the King Air B-200 from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The Atmospheric Carbon and Transport–America, or ACT-America, campaign will observe greenhouse gas transport with instruments on two NASA aircraft including the King Air B-200 from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
“The accuracy standard we hold our instrument to is one tenth of a part per million,” Davis told me. “That’s hard. You can’t just go down to the store and get a carbon dioxide sensor that does that.”

Technician Jim Plant checks an instrument rack aboard the King Air B-200 at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in preparation for the first ACT-America flights this month.
Technician Jim Plant checks an instrument rack aboard the King Air B-200 at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in preparation for the first ACT-America flights this month.
We know a lot about the quantity of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions because it’s easy to count them at the pump and at the power plant. And scientists also take measurements of global carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from ground-based towers, mountaintops and satellites. But measuring methane, another important greenhouse gas, is more complicated. Methane that comes from biological systems like wetlands, rice paddies, cattle farms and landfills is not very well quantified. We don’t have monitors on rice paddies or landfills. There’s no reporting system. And methane from fossil fuel production and distribution typically comes from a leak.

So on July 18th, Davis and his team will head out to the first of three study areas for a two-week stint. These three regional study areas were chosen to represent a combination of weather and greenhouse gas fluxes across the U.S. The Midwest has a lot of farms and therefore has an agricultural signal. It’s also the origin point of cyclones. The Northeast forests are different than the Southern coastal forests, which will give us both types of data. The Southern coastal weather, storms and flow off the Gulf of Mexico are unique, and there’s oil and gas development in both the Mid-Atlantic and Southern regions. This means that between these three study areas, the team will be able to observe a wide range of conditions.

In addition to measuring regional sources and sinks of carbon dioxide and methane, ACT-America is planning to fly on a path right underneath NASA’s OCO-2 satellite to measure air characteristics, provide calibration and validation and make OCO-2’s data more useful. The mission will also fly through a variety of weather systems to find out how they affect the transport of these greenhouse gases.

Davis told me he’s “excited to fly through cold and warm fronts and mid-latitude cyclones to find out how greenhouse gases get wrapped up in weather systems.”

Find out more about ACT-America here

Thank you for reading.

Laura

ACT-America​ is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.

July 5, 2016, 16:06 PDT

How NASA prepares future climate scientists for careers in the sky

NASA's Student Airborne Research Program trains future climate scientists.

We receive a lot of questions, especially from students, asking us for information about how to get a job at NASA. Well, there’s more than one way to get hired here. But one of the most awesome methods we have of training young scientists and preparing them for potential hire here (or a great position anywhere) is by recruiting university undergraduates for our Student Airborne Research Program (SARP)

SARP is our eight-week summer program for college seniors with academic backgrounds in engineering or physical, chemical or biological sciences and an interest in remote sensing. We select about thirty students based on their academic performance, their interest in Earth science and their ability to work in teams. These students receive hands-on research experience on NASA's DC-8 airborne science laboratory. Yup, they get to fly on a modified NASA plane out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, in Palmdale, Calif., where they help operate instruments onboard the aircraft and collect samples of atmospheric chemicals.

Did I already say “awesome”? Oh right, I did. Well, I’ll say it again: Awesome.

Many students apply hoping to gain more research experience for graduate school. The whole air sampling team, which is exactly what it sounds like, collects air from around the plane in canisters as it’s flying through different locations and altitudes at different times. The air enters the plane from the outside through an inlet, a pipe sticking out of the plane. The student scientists open the canisters, allowing air from outside the airplane to suck into the can. Then they take the air samples back to the lab at the University of California, Irvine, for analysis and interpretation.

SARP students analyze the air samples for hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrocarbons, nitrates, oxygenates and halocarbons. Research areas include atmospheric chemistry, air quality, forest ecology and ocean biology.

Once the airborne data has been collected and analyzed, the students make formal presentations of their research results and conclusions. Over the past seven years, the program has hosted 213 students from 145 U.S. colleges and universities. And this year we look forward to helping our latest crop of SARP students gain research experience on a NASA mission, work in multi-disciplinary teams and study surface, atmospheric and oceanographic processes. 

Find out what SARP students thought about their experience here.

Find out more about SARP and other Airborne Science Programs here.

Thank you,

Laura

SARP is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.

June 20, 2016, 03:15 PDT

A sea slug changed my life

This underwater photo of a sea slug was captured with a close-up lens in Monterrey, Calif., by my first SCUBA instructor, Thomas Chapin circa 1985.

This underwater photo of a sea slug was captured with a close-up lens in Monterrey, Calif., by my first SCUBA instructor, Thomas Chapin circa 1985.

At 8 p.m. after a long day of work in the Houston humidity, Derek Rutavic, manager of the NASA Gulfstream-III that will head back to Greenland this fall, and I were in the back of the plane singing One Direction’s "Drag Me Down" over the high frequency radio system. It was stifling hot, getting dark and we were tired and hungry.

But Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) Principal Investigator Josh Willis and Project Manager Steve Dinardo, too busy to take off their sweaty fire retardant flight suits, were troubleshooting electronics at two racks of computers, and they’d asked Rutavic to get on the headset to find out if the headset noise was interfering with the high radio frequency data signal the ocean science probes were sending back to the plane. Rutavic sat on an empty science probe container, while I lounged on one of the sofas singing along in awe of the amount of hard work this team was putting in.

We’d been up early, flown multiple test flights, worked through lunch. And all of this after days and days of maintenance, and weather delays, and more hard work after more hard work. Earlier in the day, NASA T-38 supersonic jet pilot Bill Rieke flew mind-bogglingly close to the G-III to photograph the science probe deployment and determine if the technique of launching the probes through a hole in the bottom of the plane would succeed. And yes, it did. But that success merely signaled the OMG team to continue working.

And I understood exactly why this team kept going, kept moving, kept pushing on into the evening, regardless of being tired and hot and hungry. I knew exactly why they decided to keep working on the challenge. They chose to push through because they’d found something to care about, and that's always more important than our difficulties and problems. When we focus on what we really care about, we get busy doing something, even in the face of trouble. And that’s how science works.

Lessons from a sea slug

I first learned to care about the natural world around me during my junior year in college. I was in an oceanography course and we were studying sea slugs. (Yes, sea slugs.) A sea slug changed my life. Before then, I’d been, like many people, disengaged and uninterested in science. In third grade, someone came to our classroom and told us we could be the first female astronaut, and I remember thinking, “No, I couldn’t, not me.”

And now? Even though I have a job at NASA, I still feel like I don’t belong in the world of science. I feel more comfortable around athletes and artists than I do with a bunch of Ph.D.s. Maybe it’s some poorly defined stereotype that I’ve somehow bought into or some preconceived notion of how someone who does science is supposed to behave.

But those sea slugs taught me that I cared more about the natural world than I cared about the struggle of not fitting in or the challenge of the work. They appeared so delicate, small and defenseless, and I identified with that. They helped me feel connected. Noticing them forced me to wonder what else I’d start to notice if I slowed down enough to pay attention. And that connection to the natural world helped me stay committed to science, even when it was hard, even when there were problems, even when I felt like running away.

Sure, scientific experimentation, just like much of real life, includes problems, troubles, obstacles and difficulties almost every day. And while it’s true that someone, somewhere has to troubleshoot something every step of the way, we can also be excited about the effort. The OMG team understands that problems and hard work are not the exception, they are the norm. They are part of accomplishment. And it’s totally possible to thrive on these difficulties and challenges.

Look, we could be setting the world on fire right now, not by burning fossil fuels, but by our burning desire to understand our environment. Because the whole point of this experimental mission is to find out how quickly the warmer waters around Greenland are melting the second-largest ice sheet on the planet. It’s major; it’s dire; it’s intense. It’s one of the most important issues of our time.

And sitting there in the back of that plane made me think about how we, as individuals and as a society, have to find something in this world to care about. We have to find something in this world that is more important than our challenges and problems.

And you? I hope you decide to find something to care about. I hope you find something that’s important enough that you’re willing to push through your struggles, your fears and your problems to just do the work.

Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland.

View and download OMG animations and graphics.

Thank you,
Laura

Oceans Melting Greenland is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.

June 7, 2016, 10:12 PDT

OMG: Testing the waters to see how fast Oceans are Melting Greenland

NASA’s modified Gulfstream-III on the runway at Ellington Field Airport in Houston, Texas, with OMG scientists and engineers aboard.

NASA’s modified Gulfstream-III on the runway at Ellington Field Airport in Houston, Texas, with OMG scientists and engineers aboard.

We know more about the moon and other planets than we do some places on our home planet. Remote parts of the world ocean remain uncharted, especially in the polar regions, especially under areas that are seasonally covered with ice and especially near jagged coastlines that are difficult to access by boat. Yet, as global warming forces glaciers in places like Greenland to melt into the ocean, causing increased sea level rise, understanding these remote places has become more and more important.

This past spring, Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) Principal Investigator Josh Willis led a team of NASA scientists to begin gathering detailed information about the interface between Greenland’s glaciers and the warming ocean waters that surround them. The next step in accessing this extremely remote region involves dropping a series of Airborne Expendable Conductivity Temperature Depth, or AXCTD, probes that will measure ocean temperature and salinity around Greenland, from the sea surface to the sea floor. With this information, they hope to find out how quickly this warmer ocean water is eating away at the ice.

Since no one has ever dropped AXCTDs through a tube at the bottom of a modified Gulfstream-III, the OMG team headed to Ellington Field Airport near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for a test drop into the Gulf of Mexico. I went along for the ride.

"In position!"

Expert NASA T-38 pilot Bill Rieke executes his flight plan to rendezvous with the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) scientists and engineers aboard NASA’s modified Gulfstream-III at “drop one.” As soon as photographer James Blair is ready with his high speed and high definition cameras, he calls out “In position!” from the supersonic jet to the team in the G-III over Very High Frequency (VHF) radio. 

The money shot

It’s up to Derek Rutovic, G-III program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to visually inspect the release of the AXCTD to make sure it does not impact the plane and then to see that the parachute opens. The first test drop was released while the plane was flying at a height of 5,000 feet and a speed of 180-200 knots. 

Temperature and salinity

Alyson Hickey and Derek Rutovic prepare the AXCTD tubes for deployment. After these test flights are complete, the mission heads up to Greenland this fall, where the AXCTDs will measure temperature and salinity around Greenland to make a detailed analysis of how quickly the warmer waters around Greenland are eating away at the ice sheet.

3, 2, 1 ... drop!

G-II pilot Bill Ehrenstrom calls out “Three, two, one, drop!” over the Very High Frequency (VHF) radio channel to signal Rocky Smith, who then pushes the AXCTD tube through a hole in NASA’s modified Gulfstream-III. Rocky then announces, “AXCTD is clear.” 

AXCTD sails down

Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) Project Manager Steve Dinardo and OMG Principal Investigator Josh Willis wait for a radio signal as the AXCTD sails down through the air to indicate it’s arrived at the sea surface. Once it hits the sea surface, it releases its probe, which travels through the ocean to the sea floor and sends ocean temperature and salinity data up to the team in the aircraft above, who monitor the data in real time. 

The flight path

Both aircraft must execute a complex flight path, which involves filming two precision AXCTD test drops minutes apart.

Details, details, details

debrief
To execute the precision flying required to photograph the test drop of a series of AXCTDs, the team is briefed before and after all flights, where every detail is explicitly coordinated. From left: Flight Engineer Alyson Hickey, Oceans Melting Greenland Principal Investigator Josh Willis, photographer James Blair, Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) Project Manager Steve Dinardo and NASA Gulfstream-III Program Manager Derek Rutovic.

Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland.

View and download OMG animations and graphics.

Thank you for your comments.

Laura

Oceans Melting Greenland is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.

May 6, 2016, 02:01 PDT

Plankton and you: The science of how we're all connected to climate

Each spring, the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean host a huge natural bloom of phytoplankton—microscopic, plant-like organisms that are important for carbon cycling and also could influence clouds and climate. Source: NASA's Earth Observatory. Credit: Norman Kuring, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership.

Each spring, the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean host a huge natural bloom of phytoplankton—microscopic, plant-like organisms that are important for carbon cycling and also could influence clouds and climate. Source: NASA's Earth Observatory. Credit: Norman Kuring, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership.

Every year toward end of the semester, when students have just finished their second round of exams and they’re irritable, burned out and just plain over it, I walk into the oceanography class I teach with “the plankton lecture.” They give me this look that says, “Aww, come on, you’ve got to be kidding.” But I’m obsessed with plankton, obsessed. And I want the whole world to know. Plankton are da bomb, plankton rule, plankton are the bestest, awesomest, sickest beasts ever.

So you can imagine how psyched I was to smack talk with plankton expert and principal investigator of NASA’s North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) Mike Behrenfeld. He’s interested in the link between the blooming plankton food web and its influence on global climate. See, when animal plankton and bacteria munch on the plant plankton, organic compounds the plants produce get broken into itty bitty pieces. These small particles become aerosolized, which means they get lofted out of the ocean and into the atmosphere by wind and breaking waves, where they become the condensation nuclei around which water droplets form. So when these tiny creatures of the sea multiply, those bloom events end up influencing clouds.

Micrograph of phytoplankton. Image by NOAA MESA Project, via the NOAA Photo Library.
Micrograph of phytoplankton. Image by the NOAA MESA Project, via the NOAA Photo Library.
Now, the North Atlantic Ocean is home to the biggest annual plankton event on the planet. “It’s by far the biggest bloom. It goes all the way across the North Atlantic from about 40 degrees north up to the Arctic ice,” Behrenfeld told me. It’s kind of like a Coachella festival for plankton. “To study the plankton bloom stuff you need a ship, and to study the aerosol stuff you need an airplane, which explains why NAAMES combines planes and ships,” he told me.

The North Atlantic also has extremely particle-free air, so the restricted availability of these aerosols limits water in the atmosphere’s ability to form droplets. It's the ocean’s biology that might provide an otherwise rare opportunity for water droplets to condense around. And that means a small amount of organic aerosols can go a long way. NAAMES “is an opportunity to tie the biology and aerosols together.”

I imagined being near the ocean, inhaling the salt air, feeling the moisture on my skin, in my hair. The spray reaches up, up, up, out of the sea. And just below the surface, the churning waves and frothy foam force bits of dissolved air down between the molecules of briny water. And the oxygen in that air supports life: microbes, plankton, bacteria and the food web that eats them.

“Phytoplankton, the plant plankton, are always tightly coupled with the creatures that eat them, and there are lots of things that like to eat them,” Behrenfeld explained. Oh, I’m sure they’re delicious. “The rate at which they are dying is almost perfectly matched with how fast they grow. The faster they grow, the faster they die. The only way they can bloom is if they get away from their predators. When they grow faster than the guys eating them, they’ll bloom.”

It’s that interface, the boundary zone where the atmosphere blends into the ocean and the ocean blends back into the atmosphere, the place where mixing, churning and friction form turbulence. That’s the interesting place, physically, biologically and personally. This air-water interface is also where oceanographers stick their heads out of the water and look up toward the sky to interact with atmospheric scientists who simultaneously look down from above into the water. Behrenfeld described it as working “with people in a different discipline so you get fresh ideas from another perspective and think about things in a new way.”

The NAAMES Research Vessel Atlantis ready to head out across the North Atlantic to study plankton. Source: NAAMES Flickr.
The NAAMES Research Vessel Atlantis ready to head out across the North Atlantic to study plankton. Source: NAAMES Flickr.
When I asked him what he liked most about watching NASA’s C130 fly overhead from the NAAMES ship, he responded, “The C130 is a big critter, and when they would do fly-bys all the scientists would run up on deck. The first time the plane flew over us we were heading along the east coast of the U.S. and the plane was heading up to Canada. It was nighttime, and I got a call from the instrument operator on the plane saying, ‘We’ll be over in a couple of minutes.’ This bright green flash of the Lidar instrument started cutting through the clouds and just painted the ship with green light. It was very cool. Scientists on the plane could see the ship, too.”

Behrenfeld and the rest of the NAAMES team hope this research will help them learn how changes in climate will impact ecosystems. “If you look at blooms from a traditional standpoint, that more sunlight causes more blooms, you might expect that warming would give you a bigger bloom. But phytoplankton blooms are initiated by deep ocean mixing, and if you warm the ocean, then your winter mixing depth will be less and you might have a later onset of the bloom or a smaller bloom. The potential consequences of change in blooming areas could be huge.” 

Thank you for reading and for your comments.

Laura

North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.

April 28, 2016, 09:57 PDT

We're over being bummed about climate change and ready for solutions.

Modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Modified from Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you feel a bit pessimistic. You can get caught in a bubble of icky vibes that bring you down. This is why I had difficulty writing about a conversation that climate communications expert Susan Hassol and I had about climate hope. We were discussing how to look toward the reality of climate change without freaking out or turning away. We agreed that being afraid is not helpful, and that a better response to the problem includes facing climate change with courage, optimism and integrity, while still feeling all of the stressful emotions, even though that’s hard.

Climate communications expert Susan Hassol
Climate communications expert Susan Hassol
Yet I wondered how to inspire others when I’m feeling unmoved and glum.

Then I went out to Riverside, Calif., where I gave a speech at the American Public Works Association, a group of city planners, public works officers, contractors and consultants who draw up plans for building roads, bridges, buildings and landscaping. I learned about an extremely drought-tolerant grass species especially developed to avoid wasting water on golf courses. I sat near a guy who consulted a number of cities across California on their plans for multi-use pedestrian/cyclist/automobile roads.

In an instant, I understood Hassol’s point: “Of course there’s a huge problem, but if you keep hitting people with problems, they just want to pull the covers over their head. Focusing on the solutions is energizing, it’s inspiring, as opposed to leaving people so depressed that they have no energy to act. There really is a lot to be positive about.”

Look, I know it’s really hard to be optimistic when you’re down. So the best antidote to fight off the climate blues, according to Hassol, is to take action. “I do more work, give more talks, work with more scientists, get out there, and give people real hope. I also balance my reading,” she continued. “For every couple of articles I read in science journals about the melting poles, the hottest year on record, the worst fire season on record, the flooding, I try to look at what’s happening on the solutions side: the growth in solar and wind, the improvements in the economics of renewable energy, the ambitious action taking place in cities, states and countries around the world.”

“What makes people happier is more time to do the things that really matter,” Hassol continued. “Stuff is not what makes us happy. Relationships are what make us happy, walks in the woods, reading books with your kid. None of those things are based on consuming. This is about having more integrity in our lifestyle choices, about having more time, more peace. We can grow personally, without always growing the economy.”

There’s an extra positive bonus, she added: “You’ll know that you’re making a positive contribution to the world.”

Climate change is not distant in time or space. It’s in our own backyard now, affecting all of us. And we’re going to pay, one way or another, or as Hassol then reframed it more positively, “The sooner we reduce emissions, the less it will cost. So let’s do as much as we can, as fast as we can.”

She excitedly went on to list a number of positives, namely the big increases in renewable energy use across the board, from individuals to cities:

  • Scotland generated nearly 60 percent of its electricity with renewables in 2015 and is aiming for 100 percent.
  • Nine massive U.S. companies pledged to go 100 percent renewable, including Nike, Walmart, Goldman-Sachs, Johnson and Johnson, Proctor and Gamble, and Starbucks. This is a good financial investment, given that the most ambitious companies have seen a 27 percent return on their investments. They’re not doing it because they love polar bears; they’re doing it because it’s good for their bottom line.
  • Goldman-Sachs in particular says it’s going for 100 percent renewables by 2020.

Between climate change and El Niño, 2016 will likely break the global temperature record. But we’ll potentially have a turning point with renewables, so this year could be big. Listening to her voice got me excited, even though I’d woken up melancholy.

I wondered when climate change and a strong push for renewables will make its way to the top of the inbox. “The thing that gives me the most hope,” she said, “is that I feel we’re right at that inflection point right now. It’s not a time to let up, it’s a time to push hard.”

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments.

Laura

April 19, 2016, 10:51 PDT

Game on, climate change! This Earth Day, be confident

Credit: Nemeziya / Shutterstock.com.

Credit: Nemeziya / Shutterstock.com.

Cimate change news is intense. Ice caps are melting, the fire season lasts all year long; we have epic storms plus record-breaking floods, droughts and cyclones.

And this year will probably be the Hottest. Year. Ever.

When I interact with the public, I’m bombarded with questions such as “Are we all going to die?” and “How soon will humans go extinct?”

Happy Earth Day, everyone (wipes brow, rolls eyes).

Yet, when I wake up in the morning I'm excited to come to work. I'm energized. I’m amped, really amped. As in, kicking-butt-and-taking-names amped. Why? Because global warming is the greatest challenge of our lives, and challenge is what drives us. Challenge provides us with opportunity, challenge forces us to grow, challenge opens the way for amazing achievement. Challenge is exciting. Without challenge, without struggle, without discomfort, no one would ever advance.

So, when someone gets in my face and is super negative, I try to stay powerful, strong and confident. I tell myself that pressure is okay and I'm going to keep moving no matter what. Because I care about this planet so much that I choose to make a difference.

Yes, carbon dioxide levels are high and increasing rapidly. Yes, future generations will have some extraordinarily difficult challenges to deal with. But denial, avoidance and helplessness aren’t solutions. Can you imagine if we NASA peeps just sat there saying “Oh no, that’s too hard” when faced with huge obstacles? Are you kidding me? Come on! You think it’s easy to build science instruments on satellites and launch them into space? You think it’s easy to measure glaciers melting around the edges of Greenland, or the condition of coral reefs in the Pacific, or plankton blooms across the North Atlantic, or conduct eight field research campaigns in one year?

When the going gets tough—and it does, almost every day—we don’t just stop. We keep working. We know that no successful person got As on every test and that failure and struggle are part of accomplishment. We know that grit and determination will get you everywhere!

In this blog, I write about ocean pollution, sea level rise, climate change and decreasing biodiversity not to scare you, but to empower you, so we can make a difference—you and I, together. Someone reading this blog entry might be the creator of a new breakthrough technology, and then there will be a whole new reality.

So, when you think about the challenge of climate change this Earth Day, consider the possibility of welcoming that challenge. Our shared story could be a story about not giving up, about looking forward to growth, about saying, “Game on.”

Find out more about NASA earth expeditions here.

Join NASA for a #24Seven celebration of Earth Day.

Thank you for caring enough to make a difference and for being powerful in the world.

Laura

March 30, 2016, 06:35 PDT

Sorrow and excitement

Watching global warming in real-time from a NASA plane

This shot of Greenland was captured from the window of NASA's modified G-III airplane for the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign.

This shot of Greenland was captured from the window of NASA's modified G-III airplane for the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign.

Hey, readers: Our team reads your comments. We share them at our meetings. Sometimes they make us laugh, or sigh, or even scratch our heads.

We see that you see us. Yay for connecting!

And this is how I know you’ve noticed NASA’s latest airborne campaign, where NASA scientists fly a bunch of NASA instruments on a NASA airplane to study more details about Earth. Cool, right?

Lately, we’ve been flying around the edge of Greenland collecting radar data about how much its glaciers are melting into the sea. And the most common comment we get goes something like “Wheee! Let’s go. Take me with you.” When I told a friend about the possibility of joining the team in the field, she exclaimed, “All expenses paid?”

HAHAHA … no. As if a NASA expedition to Greenland is like a resort vacation instead of a giant heaping pile of hard work.

“When I looked down at the rivers of ice running into the ocean, it was shocking to think about the effects of rising sea levels as far away as California or Antarctica,” said Principle Investigator Josh Willis, two days after returning from his first trip to observe this pristine part of our planet as it melts into the sea and goes bye-bye. “Yet, I had a blast.” Because even though we all probably have many complex emotions about climate change, ice mass loss and sea level rise, we can still simultaneously feel super duper stoked about the chance to fly over the glaciers of Greenland in a freaking NASA plane. “The mountains, the ice, the water and the ice in the water are incredibly striking even though it’s lonely to see it disappearing at the hands of human activity,” he told me.

Yes, emotions are weird, and yes, there’s an awkward contrast or odd juxtaposition between feeling both thrill and grief at the same time.

But that’s life, I guess.

So just in case you’re still envisioning a champagne-swilling, caviar-scoffing, gangsta, hip-hop music video scene, here are a few things that might surprise you about the kind of major effort it takes to get on board NASA’s G-III plane and join the Oceans Melting Greenland field campaign:

Kick booty in a fire-resistant flight suit

OMG Principal Investigator Josh Willis (far left and far right) "joshing around" with videographer Rob Andreoli, technician Robert "Rocky" Smith, pilot Thomas Parent and radar operators Tim Miller and Ron Muellerschoen.
OMG Principal Investigator Josh Willis (far left and far right) "joshing around" with videographer Rob Andreoli, technician Robert "Rocky" Smith, pilot Thomas Parent and radar operators Tim Miller and Ron Muellerschoen.
So, you think you’d kick some booty in one of these flight suits? Oh, yeah. Totally. Well, so do we. Would you kill to have one? But the real reason the pilots think they’re so fab is because they’re fire-resistant. They. Resist. Fire! With racks and racks of science equipment wired with electrical cables, the crew has to be extra careful about fire on the plane. So wearing one of these flight suits is required.

A load of gas and no mistakes

A day's flight plan is often complex due to Greenland’s jagged coastline, which is more than 27,000 miles long, longer than the distance around Earth at the equator. The blue lines indicate the plane’s potential flight path.
A day's flight plan is often complex due to Greenland’s jagged coastline, which is more than 27,000 miles long, longer than the distance around Earth at the equator. The blue lines indicate the plane’s potential flight path.
A trip to Greenland sounds all romantic ‘n’ stuff, but operating a science instrument aboard a flying science lab on a six-hour flight every day is hard work. Just check out these flight paths. According to Project Manager Steve Dinardo, “You get a full load of gas and no mistakes.” Notice the flight path zigzags across the complicated coastline of the entire island. That’s because global warming of Earth’s atmosphere is melting the top of the ice sheet. But, aha! The ocean water around Greenland is even warmer than the air. That warm water is busy melting the glaciers from around their edges, hence the name, Oceans Melting Greenland, which will find out exactly how much of this melting is going on.

Instruments, instruments and more instruments. And did I mention some serious training?

Project Manager Steve Dinardo and me aboard NASA’s modified G-III. A serious lack of champagne and caviar, but check out all that science equipment.
Project Manager Steve Dinardo and me aboard NASA’s modified G-III. A serious lack of champagne and caviar, but check out all that science equipment.
The NASA modified G-III aircraft is … modified. (Did you notice the word “modified”?) What modified means is the plane has holes in it so experimental science instruments can stick out. And more scientific instruments are attached in, under and onto the plane in all sorts of configurations. To get to fly on this baby, you’d better have some training. Yep, some serious training: Safety training, first aid training, survival training. You get the idea.

Keep warm, in style

If you’re planning to be cold, it’s best to do it in style.
If you’re planning to be cold, it’s best to do it in style.
I can work the runway like a glamazon in this red coat, but it’s rated for survival in 50 degrees below zero. I said survival. In case of emergency. Does this sound like your all-inclusive vacation package now? With a survival coat? And there’s a survival vest too, with a beacon attached, and food rations, a pocketknife tool set, fishing gear, first aid supplies, a radio and a laser pointer for playing with cats—oops, I mean for signaling emergency and attracting rescue. The thing weighs about 20 pounds. Everyone on the plane has one of these puppies, and you’d better believe they know how to use it. If there’s a problem, the team would have to survive three to five days out in the wilderness until they're rescued. I don’t mean to scare you, but at NASA, when we say we care about safety, we’re not messing around.

“It’s not a triumph of human achievement that we’re melting the ice sheet,” said Willis. “When you see how huge these glaciers are and this huge chunk of this ice sheet disappearing into the ocean, it’s almost incomprehensible even when you see it from 40,000 feet.”

Wheee.

Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland here.

View and download an OMG poster/infographic here.

Thank you for your comments.

Laura

Oceans Melting Greenland is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.

March 16, 2016, 07:49 PDT

Greenland is melting and it's time to pay attention

One of NASA's modified G-III aircraft in the hangar at Armstrong Flight Research Center being prepped for a mission to study glaciers around Greenland.

One of NASA's modified G-III aircraft in the hangar at Armstrong Flight Research Center being prepped for a mission to study glaciers around Greenland.

Yes, yes, Greenland is melting. You already knew that…probably. And the giant flux of fresh water pouring out of the second largest ice sheet on the planet isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Greenland’s ice melt is actually accelerating. In the last decade alone, NASA’s twin GRACE satellites measured it gushing 2 trillion tons of ice like a fire hose pouring fresh water into the North Atlantic.

But it’s easier to focus on politics, celebrity gossip, reality TV and cat videos than on Earth’s climate. It seems like everyone’s all “Greenland? Who cares. Whatever. Next.” And that upsets me.

Is it really that easy to pretend the effects of global warming don’t exist?

We overlook Greenland ice loss at our own peril. It’s one of the largest contributors to accelerating sea level rise, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes at less than 4 feet above high tide. If you happen to be one of them, you should definitely pay attention to Greenland.   

Fortunately for all of us, NASA is paying attention to Greenland in a big way. We’re so concerned about the amount of ice loss that we’ve named a Greenland observing expedition Oceans Melting Greenland, or OMG for short, because that's the most appropriate response to the phenomenon.

Dr. Josh Willis oversees integration of the GLISTIN-A radar instrument to the belly of the aircraft.
Dr. Josh Willis oversees integration of the GLISTIN-A radar instrument to the belly of the aircraft.
This week, OMG heads up north on one of NASA’s G-III modified airplanes to continue a five-year mission that will look closely at how warming ocean water interacts with glaciers surrounding Greenland and melts them. The project began this past year by mapping undersea canyons via a ship equipped with an echo sounder. For this next part of the investigation, a radar instrument attached to the bottom of the G-III, called the Airborne Glacier and Land Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN-A), will be able to measure precisely how much the oceans are eating away at the edges of the ice on a glacier-by-glacier basis.

Instrument integration (a fancy word for attaching instruments to planes and making sure they work and don’t come loose) went down at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, and Principal Invesigator Dr. Josh Willis, Project Manager Steve Dinardo, Co-Investigator Dr. Ian Fenty and I headed there to check it out.

Glaciers on the edge 

As the technicians and engineers tweaked fistfuls of wires, we crawled in, under, through and around the aircraft. Then Dr. Ian Fenty (who helped design the flight plan) and I sat aboard our flying science lab and talked ice loss for a while. “We often find that a glacier that’s been retreating a lot might be in 1,000 feet of water,” he explained. “Whereas the glacier that’s not thinning very much is in water that’s only 100 or 200 feet deep.” That’s because the layers of ocean water around Greenland are in a very unique situation, where you have colder fresh glacier meltwater near the surface over salty ocean water that, due to climate change, has been warming. The water found at 600 feet and below is a relatively warm 4 degrees Celsius compared with the surface water, which is just near freezing at 0 degrees. This means that the “primary suspect” behind the acceleration of Greenland’s melting glaciers is the warming ocean waters that can get right up against the edge and interact with the glacier itself.

As the surface of lower elevation glaciers melts, the water percolates through the ice and forms giant subglacial channels, like a river system under the ice. If the ice running through these narrow rivers breaks off, the friction between the glacier and the substrate gets reduced a bit and literally stretches the ice so the glacier thins out. OMG’s GLISTIN-A radar is going to measure the height of the ice. “If we see a change in elevation from one year to the next, we can know how much ice is being lost and how much the movement of the glacier is speeding up.” Over the next five years OMG plans to go back to Greenland to look for more changes.

NASA technicians put the final touches on the GLISTIN-A instrument.
NASA technicians put the final touches on the GLISTIN-A instrument.
As I left the hangar and headed home, I thought about how Greenland is such a weird part of the world and how much I hope our society can put aside its troubles so we can work together to preserve it.

Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland here.

Thank you for your comments.

Laura

February 24, 2016, 10:52 PST

Of course Earth is the best planet. But aren’t you a bit curious about NASA's missions to Mars?

A demonstration at NASA Langley Research Center's Structures and Materials Laboratory of a future otherworldly home for astronauts.

A demonstration at NASA Langley Research Center's Structures and Materials Laboratory of a future otherworldly home for astronauts.

A few weeks ago, a journalism student approached me about interviewing a NASA spokesperson about the pros and cons of going to Mars. I could tell by her tone and the way she phrased her request that it was thinly veiled code for “I think it’s stupid for NASA to waste so much money sending people to Mars.”

Look, I appreciate Planet Earth as much as, if not way more, than the next person. I’m one of the few people I know working at NASA who has never even wanted to be an astronaut. Sure, floating and flying gravity-free would be full-on fantastic for like…wait for it…fifteen minutes. But being stuck in a metal tube without windows or showers, eating nasty food and using a space bathroom make me shake my head no faster than you can say “Buzz Aldrin.”

But really, I have to have the smell of dirt, the smell of the soil of our Earth. Yes, you may be rolling your eyes right now and thinking I’m weird. But trust me, smells affect our reptilian brain and they’re super important. You wouldn’t value the smell of Earth until you didn’t have it, and then it would drive you bonkers. Besides, if you’re a journalist, you should know that NASA sends more robots to space than it sends people. Robots are a bargain, so as far as I’m concerned, we can send as many of them to the red planet as we please.

Still, I understand why some people get upset about the idea of going to Mars, whether we send humans or robots or salami sandwiches. But the arguments for and against have already been hashed out and are so well documented that anyone with access to the Internet can read up on the topic for days.

So, now back to Earth, the interesting planet. And scene.

Except wait a minute. Wait just one minute.

What if you got the chance to go inside one of the space-pod living quarters NASA is developing for astronauts to potentially live on the surface of a planet other than Earth? Would you be curious? Just a little? Would you go inside and check it out just to see it? Hell to the yes you would. Totally.

So would I.

Which explains how I managed to be standing in the entry area part of “the habitat” in the Structures and Materials Lab at NASA’s Langley Research Center, hearing a drawn out “whoosh” sound. “You’re gonna get a burst-a air, and then you’re gonna have your ears pop,” said David Mercer, a NASA application developer, in a Virginia accent. He was giving me a tour of NASA’s Expandable Habitat Demonstrator, a white pod-looking thing that reminded me of a giant dinosaur egg, the possible-someday-future crib of up to six astronauts.

Mercer explained that the whoosh sound was the pressure being equalized in the air interlock area. It’s like one of those mud rooms where people store their galoshes, and where astronauts would probably store their uniforms so as not to contaminate the living quarters. Astronauts would equalize the pressure in this entryway before going outside by creating a vacuum if they were on the moon or by filling the air interlock area with Martian atmosphere if they were on Mars.

The habitat and the journey

Going inside "the habitat."
Going inside "the habitat." Credit: NASA.
After the pressure equalized, we stepped across a threshold, which looked like the porthole entryway from any sci-fi film you’ve ever seen, and into the inner compartment of the habitat, a round white space that was about the size of my bedroom. I wondered how anybody could live in the teeny little room.

We emerged from our dino egg and Mercer continued to show me around the Expandable Structures for Lunar Landers and Habitats Laboratory. I was surprised to learn that these odd, egg-like, otherworldly space-houses were made from lightweight, flexible, expandable and durable fabric and that these new, innovative materials would likely have countless uses here on this planet.

Then Mercer led me over to a crane-looking contraption with a space forklift and a space scoop attached to it like a ginormous Swiss army knife made for space: the Lightweight Surface Manipulator System, which gets mounted on top of the lander to unload the habitat. “The landers would get there before the astronauts,” he explained. “The first lander’s robots would go around scouting out places to set up base. You would probably go out with a mobile device like a plow and level everything out. Then another lander would come with a habitat, or several landers with several habitats.”

The point of all this is to design, develop and build various expandable structures, including landers, habitats, excavators, transport vehicles and construction tools that may someday serve as a sustained settlement or outpost on another planet. All of it needs to be versatile, modular, compact, durable and light-weight. Piece o’ cake, right?

On top of those challenges, astronauts have to be concerned about being bombarded with radiation during solar storms, which can last up to 36 hours. The journey to the moon is only two days, but a trip to Mars could take up to six months depending on the propulsion and how the orbits of the two planets line up. On a long journey like that, they’d have to go into some kind of protected area. Mercer pointed to a space the size of a small walk-in closet and described a scenario of up to four people huddling in the closet for the duration of the storms. Wheeee! Sounds super fun, right (sarcasm intended)? You could come out for a few 15-minute intervals during the storm, he explained, to take care of b’ness (if ya know what I mean).

But honestly, why do all this? Why go to all that trouble building and testing structures and materials for potential travel and habitation outside of Earth?

Because there’s something about having a goal that’s barely attainable that sets an aspirational tone for all of us, whether or not we work on NASA’s journey to Mars. Reaching towards an intangible goal, towards what seems almost impossible, inspires motivation, commitment, purpose. It’s visionary.

And being inspired by something visionary requires looking beyond what others regard as stupid or wasteful.

NASA Langley Research Center's Structures and Materials Laboratory, home of the space-pod living quarters. Credit: NASA.
NASA Langley Research Center's Structures and Materials Laboratory, home of the space-pod living quarters. Credit: NASA.

I look forward to reading your comments, visionary or otherwise.

Laura