Leaves blown in by a strong wind lay scattered across the foyer of the building where I work. The skies are greyer, and the sun’s rays lay low in the late afternoon. The world is quietly exhaling.
In the stillness of winter solstice, that time of year when days are shorter and nights are longer, when the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere is as tilted away from the sun as it will ever be, I let the cold starkness surround me like a blanket.
In this moment, time seems to stand still, even as Earth continues its enduring revolution around our star. Even as seasons blend into each other year after year after year.
In this moment, I reach out to you, NASA reaches out to you. We are connected. Together we breathe, together we watch our world, together we look forward to the green shoots that make their way up through the soil. Because remember, after the longest of dark nights always comes the spring.
Find out more about equinoxes and solstices here.
My writing teacher and I said goodbye to each other. We cried together as I told her she would live on through my writing. She already knew. Because a dark night brings another sunrise, a winter brings another spring, and a goodbye brings another hello.
No one is truly alone; we rely on other people all the time. Teamwork, backing and support aren’t optional, they’re necessities.
The first writing assignment she gave me was to open my front door and describe the first plant I saw. Through this exercise, I learned how to observe the world and make detailed descriptions of those observations, while avoiding interpretations or judgmental words like “good,” or “nice,” or “pretty.” My writing became stronger when I told the story as it was, bringing along the reader and letting us both interpret the events together. For example, instead of telling you that I had a nice weekend, I learned to tell you that I sat near a fireplace with my puppy to my left and a friend on my right, drinking lemon, mint and honey (all right, there was a tiny bit of gin in there, too) and making travel plans. Then you, the reader, can make up your own mind about how my weekend was.
My writing teacher was a writer, a composer, a film producer. She was a true artist in every sense. And I’m sure you noticed the connection between the art of writing and the art of doing science, right? Science, including the type of satellite remote sensing at which NASA excels, is based on making detailed observations and allowing those observations to tell their story. NASA spacecraft give us images of glaciers, volcanoes, forests, large cities and sea ice, among other stories of a changing planet. And it’s up to us to see the details in those stories. When the images—the stories—have enough detail, we can interpret them and make meaning out of them.
When I think about how her life flows through me and out into the world, I also think about how we at NASA are part of a continuous stream of creative endeavors, of science, of aspirations achieved—each one built upon those who came before, and each one a step for the next ones to climb.
Thank you for reading.
Sigh. Sometimes life feels heavy.
Even as the holidays approach and we’re all supposed to be in a holiday spirit, supposed to be joyous. Sometimes we’re just not there.
But, as always, NASA gives me the opportunity to look at Earth from the highest perspective. From above, the world appears remote and untouched. There’s nothing but the timeless, immaculate and infinite beauty of our planet.
Together, you and I get to take this opportunity to share thankfulness for our Earth and everything pristine and beautiful about it.
Thank you for reading. I really mean it.
Earth, from the vantage point of space: Serene, breathtaking, magnificent. No matter how crazy busy your day is, no matter the level of stress, or chaos, or distraction, take a moment today—right now, in fact—to step back and feast on the great wonder of our home planet, Earth.
Rockets, rockets, rockets. Space ships, too. We’re NASA. And yes, we launch fancy tech stuff, and burn rocket fuel in the process. Yup, we do.
Oh yeah, we have a bunch of aircraft as well, so add plane fuel to that.
True, we do launch spacecraft and we do fly modified aircraft, but if you believe that’s all we do, then maybe you didn’t know about the huge role NASA plays in greenhouse gas mitigation, environmental stewardship, and partnering and planning for sustainability.
I mean, when most people think about the International Space Station, the first thing that comes to mind is floating and flipping around in zero gravity, not the fact that the ISS is an off-the-grid, self-contained environmental ecosystem with a core principle of conserving resources. It’s a real test-bed for learning how to live sustainably.
Think about it: For astronauts at station or on a journey to Mars, recycling water is required!
And scientists and engineers are also people, so our way of life has an impact on the environment we study. This means that the same person who remembers to use both sides of a sheet of paper and be less wasteful might also be the same person responsible for purchasing a big polluting thing like a generator. “The daily habits we practice here — the behaviors, the teams, thinking about the process before you start — get people in the mindset to develop a system for sustainability,” Walker said. See, some of NASA’s buildings are large and power hungry, especially the ones that house those spaceships. Earlier that day, I’d been romping around in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, a huge beast of a building that houses the Space Station and Space Shuttle trainers, Orion landers, and oodles of robots and robo-vehicles. That building must be a monster to keep cool, dry, lit, etc.
“We operate a central plant with boilers, which are a source of greenhouse gases. If we buy the one that pollutes less,” Walker explained, “then whatever plant I’m operating, the cleaner I can do it, the less overhead. And 10 years from now, when the rules tighten up, we’ll still be able to use the same generator.”
So managing a NASA facility and learning to promote energy conservation is great practice, regardless of whether we’re planning for a future on Earth or on a 2.5- to 3-year journey to Mars.
And yes, at NASA, we do want to be around longer than that.
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Walker’s sustainability management approach also focuses on areas of energy and water reduction, green purchasing, reducing the generation of hazardous waste and increased diversion from landfilling of waste through recycling initiatives. Under Walker’s direction, the JSC constructed eight certified green buildings that use 100 percent green power and average 35- to 40-percent reductions in energy and water consumption of comparable facilities. With Walker’s leadership, JSC has reduced potable water use by 15 percent annually, or more than 60 million gallons per year, since 2009, and over the past two years has composted more than 85,000 pounds of food waste.
You might expect that being a science writer primarily focused on climate change and climate science could put me in a bad mood. You can see this if you read the comments on many of my blogs, on our NASA Climate Change Facebook page and on my TEDx video. Many commenters think I should express more alarm about our changing climate.
Yes, climate change is happening, it’s real and it’s serious. I know it and my climate scientist friends know it. But I’m just not the kind of person who can spend my days in fear, despair and anger. I just can’t. Fundamentally, it’s not who I am.
What works in my life is finding something positive and then taking action in that positive direction, which explains how I found myself traveling to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to support NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland team in the field. See, NASA is the exploration leader — on this planet and beyond. And believe me, Greenland is out there. It’s so remote, so unknown, so unpopulated, that even after thousands of years of human exploration of our planet and hundreds of years of scientific exploration we still know very little about the ocean surrounding Greenland’s coastline and the water inside its long, ice-carved fjords. Greenland is unusual, a unique environment unto itself. The ice sheet is so vast, it makes its own weather patterns.
So, of course, with NASA’s prominent role in Earth remote sensing and climate change and our capacity to explore the unknown, we’d be the first ones to fly right up into those exceptionally remote fjords to measure the ocean water there. As scientists, decoding the natural world is our way of taking meaningful positive action. It’s our way of caring. We care about the warm water that reaches up Greenland’s icy coastline and melts the ice sheet into the water. We care, so we go there and witness. We go there and we observe. We go there and we measure. And all the while, we feel like we’ve made an effort, we’ve done good work.
And so I flew with Team OMG on a modified NASA G-III aircraft into uncontrolled airspace to places where no other aircraft had flown before, up into those narrow and steep ice-covered fjords, winding in and out, up and down, over and through to observe and measure, like scientists do.
As I was working, I also got to see the brilliant white ice carve its way through steep brown valleys into open ocean water. I saw the glorious expanse of white upon deep blue going on and on and on below us as we flew just 5,000 feet above the winding coastline. It was extraordinary. And this might seem odd to you, but I felt joyous. Yes, I did. Joyous.
For there is something undeniable about the sheer beauty of this planet, and any time you get to experience it is a moment to feel exuberant and alive.
Check out this video of Team OMG celebrating its accomplishments.
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I went off for a day to visit Russell Glacier, which flows from the Greenland Ice Sheet down the Akuliarusiarsuup Kuua River, into the Kangerlussuaq Fjord and out into the Davis Strait. I knew I’d watch it melt right in front of me. And I expected to feel sad standing there so close to such an obvious and intense signal of global warming and climate change.
I stood there as the Arctic sun moved onto the horizon behind me, breathing the cool air, listening to the loud rush of meltwater passing between me and the 200-foot wall of ice in front of me. I thought about the 100,000-year span of time that this ice sheet has lasted on this planet. I looked toward the Akuliarusiarsuup Kuua River valley thinking about the future of that meltwater as it flowed out to sea. As we continue adding heat-trapping gases to our environment, our climate will keep changing and this meltwater will only increase. Someday the whole ice sheet may be gone.
I was supposed to feel sad. But I didn’t. Instead I just felt grateful to be alive, right here, right now, in 2016. To be alive in that time between 100,000 years ago and the whatever-will-happen-in-our-climate-changed future.
I hope you understand.
Swoosh! It’s not a sound so much as a feeling. You feel it in your ears and through your whole body. And everyone on the plane — two NASA G-III pilots, two flight engineers and the rest of the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) crew—feels it at exactly the same time. It has become our inside joke.
The swoosh happens every time the flight engineers drop an Aircraft eXpendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) probe through a hole in the bottom of the plane. The AXCTD comes in a 3-foot-long gray metal tube—with a parachute. After it hits the water, the probe measures ocean temperature and salinity from the sea surface down to about 1,000 meters. The tiny difference between cabin and outside pressure pushes the probe out and makes ears pop at the same time.
This is the second week of our three- to four-week mission that will be repeated every September/October for the next five years. We’re finally starting to iron out all the minor details in our protocol. With so many moving parts, the protocol is important, and the intricate timing helps us make sure no one forgets any details and we get the most accurate record of when and where we drop each one.
- Project Manager Steve Dinardo announces “Data recorder ready.”
- Pilots Bill Ehrenstrom and Scott Reagan call out the cloud and ice conditions and the number of minutes to the drop site. Then they determine the altitude for the approach.
- At 50 seconds from the drop site, the plane slows down and cruises at about 5,000 feet.
- At 20 seconds, Lee and Vaughn open the cap of the tube—you know, the one with that hole through the bottom of the plane—and everyone’s ears pop (the first time). Protocol states that they announce “Tube open!” but since our ears just popped, we often hear “Well, of course the tube’s open” or “As you already know—tube’s open.”
- At 10 seconds, the pilots count down to 1 and say “drop.” The engineers reply “Sonde’s away” and we all feel that swoosh. There it is. Our ears pop for the second time as the AXCTD is “swooshed” down the tube and out through the hole in the bottom of the plane. (And yes, we all still look at each other with our sly smiles because it’s so much fun to say, “hole in the bottom of the plane.”)
- It is the swoosh, more than anything said during the lengthy protocol script playing through my headset, that tells me—OMG lead scientist Josh Willis—to mark the drop on my GARMIN, a GPS we use to record the location of each drop.
- After each drop, our aircraft banks steeply and we all silently celebrate the fact that we don’t get motion sickness. We continue circling during the six or so minutes it takes for the science probe to parachute down 5,000 feet to the sea surface and make its way through the water column, sending back data to us in real-time on the plane.
During our many, often challenging hours on the plane together, we share these little inside jokes and laugh—not caring if anyone in the outside world thinks it’s funny. Seems like we are bonding. I couldn’t be happier.
Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland.
View and download OMG animations and graphics.
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“What are we doing all the way out here?” I thought. If I looked out the left side of NASA’s modified G-III aircraft, I could see Canada out the window—Baffin Island, specifically, the largest island in Canada, part of its northeast territory. And if I looked out the right side, I could see the west coast of Greenland. We were pretty much halfway between the two, right in the middle of Baffin Bay, and I was surprised.
At a glacial pace
I went over to where Flight Engineer Terry Lee kept the map of all the scheduled drop positions and stared at it for a while. She’d marked with a green highlighter the places where she’d already released science probes through a tube in the bottom of the plane. (Hahahah, yes! There’s a hole in the plane through which Aircraft eXpendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) probes leave the aircraft to travel 5,000 feet down to the sea surface and then another 1,000 meters into the ocean, sending back data as they go.)
I looked out the window as we flew on. Icebergs dotted the seascape. Each one had once been part of a vast ice sheet that’s been around for hundreds of thousands of years. Each one had moved – at a glacial pace, mind you – from the interior, down through one of the many fjords that slice through the Greenland coastline, and finally out to sea, where they would ultimately melt away. The ‘bergs were large, and it was fun to fly over them and look at their perfect whiteness against the stunning blue sea. All of us would gather on one side of the plane as we passed over a ‘berg, and then quickly jump to the other side to look for it again as we passed by it. But even though there were hundreds of icebergs floating around out there, Baffin Bay is vast — more than 250 thousand square miles. So, in the grand scheme of things, the icebergs seemed inconsequential, incapable of affecting the ocean salinity more than a small amount.
As I was listening, I could see temperature and salinity values arriving in real-time on the monitor. “Wow, no way!” I exclaimed. “That’s insane.” All the way in the middle of Baffin Bay, 100 miles offshore, the ocean was fresher on the surface. I watched the salinity values increase as the probe sank. The temperature profile also reflected a scenario of near-zero-degree water at the surface with 3- to 4-degree ocean water below. That upper layer is Arctic Ocean Water, which is way less salty than the warmer North Atlantic Ocean Water that lies beneath it.
I walked back to look at the yellow dots on the map of the scheduled probe drops one more time. We were as far away from the coast as we would be; the rest of the drops were closer to shore. I wondered how the temperature and salinity profiles in the coastal waters would compare to those from the open ocean.
And the point of the mission flooded my mind again. I looked out the window, across the stretch of Baffin Bay at the Greenland coastline, where groups of icebergs dotted the horizon. In this vast expanse, no one’s done this before, no one knows what this ocean water is like, and we are about to find out.
Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland.
View and download OMG animations and graphics.
Thank you for your comments.
While NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland campaign gets busy flying around the perimeter of Greenland to measure the melt-rate of the Greenland Ice Sheet from around its edges, NASA’s Operation IceBridge has been flying across the ice sheet to survey the ice elevation and observe the impact of the summer melt season on the ice sheet. To draw the best portrait of the ice cap, sometimes IceBridge flies over the same area where researchers drill for ice cores so they can tie in airborne measurements with the more detailed data collected from those ice cores. (Photos by Laura Faye Tenenbaum)
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