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Communications Specialist

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

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

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

"Do you believe in the Pacific Garbage Patch?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plastic bits

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

NOAA: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Smithsonian page on the Pacific Garbage Patch

As always, I appreciate your comments.


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March 6, 2014
09:13 PST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, I appreciate your comments.


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

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