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.
Thank you for your comments.
“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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I’m going to Greenland. I told my brother, and he replied, “Oh cool, I’m headed to Ireland.” That’s the typical response, as if Greenland were just some place one could book a ticket to, with commercial airports, and hotels, and restaurants and stuff. But … no, Greenland is different. It’s actually not an independent country, for example. (It’s a territory of Denmark.)
The other response I keep getting is that dumb, corny comment about it not being green. So it seems like the only thing we collectively understand about Greenland is that it’s a place to go and it has a hypocritical name.
But that is just so wrong. My husband and I finally got on the same page this morning when he opened the Google Maps satellite view of Kangerlussauq Airport, where I’m scheduled to land. “Oh,” he said. “It’s a barren dirt strip in the middle of nowhere and nothing.”
At last, an acknowledgement of the truth. The only place that’s harder to get to than Greenland is outer space. I know that sounds funny, but I’m not even kidding. (Okay, okay, Antarctica is also hard to get to, along with the Marianas Trench. Ugh.)
I first became aware of how little we know about Greenland when I was creating NASA’s Global Ice Viewer for our climate website. I found shots from Alaskan glaciers that dated all the way back to the late 1800s for the gallery. Gents with top hats and ladies in bustles with Victorian cameras stood on the ice. But Greenland? Photos taken before the 1980s are extremely rare.
And while most people understand that increased atmospheric temperatures have been melting the ice sheet from above, global warming has also been increasing ocean temperatures. And this means the ocean waters surrounding Greenland are also melting the ice sheet from around its edges.
Which is the reason I’m headed up there with NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign in the first place: to measure the temperature and salinity of those unknown waters. See, the fresh water that flows into the ocean from ice melt is about 0 degrees and less dense, so it floats right at the sea surface. The North Atlantic Ocean Water is about 3 or 4 degrees, salty and denser, so it sits right below the fresh melt water. And these two waters don’t really mix much. When the 3- or 4-degree North Atlantic Ocean Water gets in contact with Greenland’s ice sheet, it’s warm enough to melt it.
But no one knows the melt rate yet. No one.
Even though Greenland’s melting ice sheet impacts each and every one of us right now. The rate of ice melt will determine how much sea level rise we’re going to get, 5 feet or 10 feet or 20, everywhere, all over planet Earth, not just in Greenland, but at coastlines near you and me.
This is where that whole NASA “exploring the unknown” theme comes in. Next week, the OMG team (including yours truly) will be in Greenland on NASA’s G-III aircraft. We’ll spend five weeks flying around the entire coastline, measuring the salinity and temperature of the coastal waters by dropping 250 Aircraft eXpendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) science probes through a hole in the bottom of the plane. The reason we’re going in September is that’s the warmest time of the year in the ocean, the ice will reach its lowest extent and we’ll be able to measure as much of the coast as possible. The plan is to repeat the same mission for five years to find out what the melt rate is and how much that rate is increasing.
Am I excited? Yes, beyond. Aside from the science preparation, it took months and months of personal prep. I passed a Federal Aviation Administration medical exam, then got trained in First Aid, CPR, AED, hypoxia, disorientation, survival, and hearing conservation, and then had to buy steel-toed shoes, which are required to fly on that NASA plane. Today, I am psyched beyond belief.
Why else would anyone work so hard to do something? Just like the rest of the team, I hope our work really makes a difference.
Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland.
View and download OMG animations and graphics.
Thank you for your comments.
Around the Houston, Texas coast near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, reminders of Hurricane Ike are everywhere. You can pick up Hurricane Ike souvenir t-shirts, it’s the name of the kicking-est drink on the two-dollar taco Tuesday menu and the spiciest sauce at the barbeque joint down the road. And even though Ike occurred back in 2008, it remains etched on the collective memory of this area as the costliest tropical cyclone ever recorded to hit Texas. It’s Ike, Ike, everywhere.
Yet what would happen to these low lying areas if climate change causes more hurricanes to form or the ones that do form become more intense? Under Hurricane Ike, there was a 12-foot storm surge. Now add that on top of an extra 8 or 17 inches of projected sea level rise over the next few years from climate change.
Sitting in Johnson Space Center’s Operations Office, I can see Galveston Bay out the window. But that’s typical. The geography of JSC is so flat that you can pretty much see the Bay out of just about any south-facing window. I’d noticed Houston’s astounding flatness flying in the day before. There were lakes, ponds and some flooded areas, as it had been raining recently. But not as much as a hill in sight.
I was talking with Joel Walker, JSC’s director of Center Operations, and Stacy Shutts, JSC’s Sustainability Program specialist, about how Walker’s Office of Strategic Infrastructure has incorporated climate change into his organization’s daily thinking. See, JSC is like a city of 7,000 people on 1,620 acres southeast of downtown Houston, and it’s Walker who keeps the place running. His office is responsible for climate mitigation and adaptation. And anyone who has a project that will impact the environment in some way has to first address it with the environmental office, which then guides them in fulfilling the project within guidelines.“There’s an environmental benefit to consolidation. We save on maintenance and energy.”
“Our lake goes into Galveston Bay, which goes into the Gulf of Mexico, so sea level rise comes up this way,” Walker said, gesturing out the window as he explained how climate change considerations have been incorporated into the master plan for where and what buildings get built over the next 20 to 25 years.
NASA loves a challenge
In 2015, Executive Order 13693 established a set of environmental challenges and goals for all federal buildings and requires all U.S. Federal Agencies to create a Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan. See NASA’s plan here. Our sustainability goals include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, petroleum use, and energy consumption in buildings; acquiring energy efficient products; and increasing renewable energy. The goals also include evaluating climate change risks to identify and manage the effects of climate change on the agency’s operations and mission, in both the short and long term. A team of Climate Adaptation Science Investigators (CASI) at NASA took this on.
Since NASA always loves a challenge, Walker and his team tried to follow all the required regulations, meet all the executive orders and then try to go beyond that. He ended up promoting a sustainability culture that permeates the entire organization.
Another part of this initiative includes reducing the square footage footprint. “There’s an environmental benefit to consolidation,” he said. We save on maintenance and energy.” One new science building under construction is less than 90 percent of the square footage of the seven older buildings it will replace and will be certified LEED Silver.“One way of thinking of stewardship or ethics is thinking it’s for somebody else."
Since JSC sits just 13 feet above sea level at its lowest point and 22 feet at its highest, Walker and his team have to address sea level rise and climate change for all new building proposals on site. And although JSC hasn’t been flooded yet, they started demolition in the lowest lying area, and the site where construction is happening is 17 feet above sea level. Yes, that’s their “hill.”
Thinking long term, for others
“One way of thinking of stewardship or ethics,” said Shutts, “is thinking it’s for somebody else. If you’re thinking in a long-term range for your business or organization, you have to plan for the next centuries ‘cause we want to be around longer than that.” Of course we want JSC to be around for generations to come. It’s historic. It was established in 1961 as the Manned Spaceflight Center and Mission Control Center for the U.S. human space flight program.
So if and when Ike’s younger brother Mike or Spike or Van Dyke washes into town, you can be sure Walker and his team will be ready for it.
Thank you for your comments.
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.
Everyone you admire, everyone who’s accomplished greatness, faced obstacles along the way. Think about it. Everyone. The most impressive athletes, artists or public figures found their way to success by moving through and overcoming roadblocks.
Today, as my morning jog turned into a run and then a sprint, I felt my power and strength as a woman to keep pushing forward. No. Matter. What.
At the entrance to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where I work, there’s a sign that says “Dare Mighty Things.” The way I see it, that sign is talking directly to me. “I dare you,” it says. Not to try something easy, but to run toward the challenge of climate change with confidence, strength and courage. And now I dare all of you.
A person can look at a thing over and over again before finally seeing it for the first time. That’s how I felt standing in front of an Arctic map at the University of Washington in Seattle. I gazed at the northwest coastline of Greenland, north of Baffin Bay, up where the Canadian Queen Elizabeth Islands come close to Greenland.
Of course I’ve looked at Arctic maps before, from a zillion different angles. Normally I’m the one pointing and explaining. “Look at how small the Arctic area is. It’s a shallow sea, mostly surrounded by continents and islands where sea ice forms and gets trapped,” I say, encouraging folks to get as excited as I am about this remote part of the planet that’s chopped up, spread out and distorted by most maps. But this time, standing next to James Morison, senior principal oceanographer from the University of Washington, I was the one listening, looking closely and being amazed.
A person can look at a thing over and over again before finally seeing it for the first time.
We were in the hallway of the Applied Physics Laboratory’s polar science wing, taking a break between Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) science team presentations. The walls were lined with photos of teams out on glaciers, ice drilling equipment, ice sheets of the world and grand ice-covered landscapes. Ice, ice and more ice, and penguins. There were pictures of polar bears and narwhals, too. But Greenland’s jagged coastline had me captivated. The islands, the convolutions, the fjords: phenomenal, mindboggling. I couldn’t take my mind off it.
But the Oceans Melting Greenland team is doing more than looking at maps of Greenland. Way more. “We’re trying to look under the ice,” Principal Investigator Josh Willis told me. “What is the sea floor like under there? What is the interface between where the bottom of the ice sheet reaches out over the seawater and down into the ocean?”
The seawater around 400 meters (1,312 feet) deep is 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the water floating near the sea surface. And the shape of the sea floor (bathymetry) influences how much of that warm, subsurface layer can reach far up into the fjords and melt the glaciers. The OMG team wants to measure how much of that warm water could be increasing due to climate change.
What will the future hold? Will we see 5 feet of sea level rise … or 10 or 20?
And even though Greenland feels untouched and remote, feels so “Who cares?” we all need to be concerned about its complex coastline and the rapid pace of its melting ice sheet. NASA’s GRACE satellites observed Greenland shedding a couple trillion—with a “t”—tons of ice over the last decade, and the rate of melt is increasing. So that winding coastline and those unfamiliar fjords have already impacted all of us—yes, that means you—undoubtedly, no matter how far away or how far inland you reside.
As each of the dozen or so OMG members took his or her turn updating the team on their most recent topography, temperature and salinity measurements, I noticed a trend. Everyone kept repeating the phrases “never been surveyed before,” “it’s a very tough area,” and “these fjords are so very small, they have no names and have never been visited before.” They are literally exploring these unknown areas in detail for the first time.
My mind drifted off to the edge of that unimaginably complicated winding coastline, that unknown place where ice meets water meets seafloor, where the ice is melting as fast as we can measure. And I had to stop the group to ask why. Specifically, why is it so tough? Why has no one been there before? It turns out this area is difficult to navigate because big chunks of remnant sea ice clog up the water. The crew has to snake in between floating icebergs and weave in and out of the narrow fjords. It’s rather treacherous. And weather conditions can be challenging up there. The other reason this area is so unknown is that the glacier has retreated so recently that the coastline is changing as fast or even faster than we can study it.
Last summer, a small group that included UC Irvine graduate student Michael Wood sailed on the M/V Cape Race deep into some of the most jagged areas around southeastern Greenland, which, according to Co-Investigator Eric Rignot, is the “most complex glacier setting in Greenland.” After more than 7,871 kilometers (4,250 nautical miles) and more than 300 Conductivity, Temperature Depth (CTD) casts, the first bathymetric survey was completed.NASA’s GRACE satellites observed Greenland shedding a couple trillion—with a “t”—tons of ice over the last decade, and the rate of melt is increasing.
Over the next five years, OMG will measure the volume of warmer water on the continental shelf around Greenland to figure out whether there is more warm water entering the fjords and increasing ice loss at the glacier terminus.
Here are some details about the OMG plan:
- Every year for four years, survey glacier elevation near the end of marine-terminating glaciers around Greenland’s coastline using NASA’s airborne synthetic aperture radar altimeter GLacier and Ice Surface Topography INterferometer (GLISTIN-A).
- Every year for five years, deploy 250 Aircraft eXpendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) probes to measure temperature and salinity of the waters around Greenland from one of NASA’s G-III aircraft.
- Use a ship with multi-beam sonar to measure bathymetry of the seafloor up very close to the extremely jagged coastline of Greenland, as well as a small vessel with a single beam going up into small places, driving up fjords and getting as close to glaciers as is safe.
- Collect gravity measurements from small planes in Northwest, Southeast and Northeast Greenland to help map the sea floor in places the ships cannot go.
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.
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.
ACT-America is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.