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

Conclusions and reflections
Eleventh-hour agreement
December 11, 2011
posted by Dr. Amber Jenkins
16:00 PST

Erika Podest

By Dr. Erika Podest, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory From the UN conference on climate change, Durban, South Africa

The negotiation halls, where it all happens. Talks are now over at the COP17 United Nations climate conference in Durban, South Africa.
The negotiation halls, where it all happens. Talks are now over at the COP17 United Nations climate conference in Durban, South Africa.



It is not until the eleventh hour — on Sunday at 6:00 am — that negotiations come to a close. An agreement has been made to develop a roadmap towards a new legally binding treaty by 2015, which would come into force in 2020. In addition, the decision has been made to adopt a second commitment period on the Kyoto Protocol — the only global pact that enforces carbon cuts — producing a five-to-seven-year extension of the current protocol, which was set to expire in 2012.

In addition, the “Green Climate Fund” was launched, which is intended to channel money to developing countries to help with their mitigation and adaptation efforts. However, it is unclear where the funding will come from. A second factor that is important to developing countries is technology transfer, and it was agreed that a technology mechanism would be fully operational by 2012 to “promote and enhance the research, development and deployment and diffusion of environmentally-sound technologies for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.”

The REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, a collaborative effort between countries to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, has probably been the biggest success story. Though agreements are in place, there are still many details to be worked out such as reference emissions levels, validation and funding, but at least there is a path forward for further discussions on fleshing out those details.

Durban, South Africa
Durban, South Africa

Looking back, this conference is probably the most important climate change gathering of our time with the whole world represented at COP17. At the very least, I would describe it as an explosion of thoughts — with the main concerns across the board being food security, water shortage, loss of biodiversity, population displacement and an increase of climate change refugees, ecological degradation, human well-being, planetary thresholds, climate, energy, governance across scales, and poverty alleviation.

My overall feeling is of awkward content that something happened (given the alternative) but also of great disappointment that more tangible results were not reached and that there is a lack of understanding behind the sense of urgency about climate change. No obligation for any nation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions until 2020 is not good enough, and that is of course, assuming that future UN deliberations flow smoothly and a global deal is reached with binding commitments. My concern is that by the time politics finally reaches a consensus to limit climate change, the climate change train will already have left the station.

Though the whole process is clearly far from perfect, it is unfortunately the only mechanism in place that rallies the international community towards addressing the effects of climate change. Ultimately, it is the scientific community that must deliver to society what we know about climate change and the risks humanity is facing in the short- and long-term. Even though I am disappointed that results from the negotiations were not more forthcoming, I leave encouraged knowing that I and the NASA community help provide the latest scientific evidence for a comprehensive update of our knowledge of Earth systems and the pressures they are under. It is this science that sets the stage for meetings like this one in South Africa and NASA, through its capability to study Earth from space, is uniquely positioned to help understand and monitor processes at national, regional, and global scales in unprecedented ways.

Even though my week was absorbed with COP17, I would not do this blog justice without mention of Durban, a relaxed and beautiful beachside city of three million people. It was obvious that South Africa and the city of Durban went to great efforts to host the conference. I was impressed by how well the event was organized and how well the city hosted and welcomed COP17 participants. Durban’s most precious asset is its people, cheerful, helpful and always sharing their warm smiles.

Saying goodbye to friends made from all over the world.
Saying goodbye to friends made from all over the world.

Finally, I am very grateful to have had this opportunity and I am particularly thankful to Jack Kaye and Duane Waliser for making it possible. I am also very grateful to Riley Duren and Tony Freeman for their advice and guidance, to Winnie Humberson for helping with logistics and preparation, to Eric Sokolowsky for being the whizz behind the Hyperwall, and to Amber Jenkins for being the magician behind this blog. A special thanks to the very friendly and professional staff from the U.S. State Department. Last but not least, to all of you who have followed my blog entries, thanks for reading!


Erika Podest is a scientist with the Water and Carbon Cycles Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a Visiting Associate Researcher in the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering (JIFRESSE) at UCLA. She focuses on using space satellites to monitor wetland ecosystems and seasonal freeze/thaw dynamics in the northern high latitudes of the globe, and improving our understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles and resources. Erika also leads a project that uses satellite data to study the palm swamp wetlands of the Amazon rainforest in order to better understand their contribution to the global carbon budget.

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Great expectations
See what tomorrow brings
December 9, 2011
posted by Dr. Amber Jenkins
16:00 PST

Erika Podest

By Dr. Erika Podest, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory From the UN conference on climate change, Durban, South Africa

Today is a fairly relaxed day for me. I take advantage of my time to walk around the exhibit hall and talk to a number of different organizations represented there. Many of them are surprised to hear that NASA actually does climate science. They think NASA is all about space exploration. So I take the time to explain to them the kind of Earth science research that we do, which is primarily satellite-focused, and I proudly point them to NASA’s Climate Change website.

As I roam around the conference premises, I run into activists chanting songs and slogans. They were given a predefined time and space, therefore they are no confrontations with police. When their allotted time is up, they peacefully pack up and leave. I thought it was very professionally handled how they were given a space and were able to deliver their message.

Today was supposed to be the closure day for COP17, a day where agreements are reached after two arduous weeks of negotiations. The big question is whether the Kyoto Protocol will be extended or a new one will be put in place, given that the Protocol is due to expire in 2012. Nations are expected to make a follow-on commitment and support action to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. But different things are expected of developed and developing countries.

Developed countries — the richer nations that have historically done most of the polluting up to this point — are expected to reduce emissions and help developing countries obtain the resources they need to put in place carbon emission reduction schemes, by providing proper funding and technology for climate-related studies and projects. Developing countries are not obliged to adhere to the more demanding commitments placed on developed countries. It is a complicated process. Negotiations are deadlocked and the end of the day is reached without closure. There is great frustration. I am struck by the magnitude of what is unfolding in front of me. Basically the condition of our planet’s future and ultimately our survival and that of future generations is being negotiated. I will wait until tomorrow to see what the future holds.


Erika Podest is a scientist with the Water and Carbon Cycles Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a Visiting Associate Researcher in the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering (JIFRESSE) at UCLA. She focuses on using space satellites to monitor wetland ecosystems and seasonal freeze/thaw dynamics in the northern high latitudes of the globe, and improving our understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles and resources. Erika also leads a project that uses satellite data to study the palm swamp wetlands of the Amazon rainforest in order to better understand their contribution to the global carbon budget.

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My big day
Earth’s climate as seen from space
December 8, 2011
posted by Dr. Amber Jenkins
16:00 PST

Erika Podest

By Dr. Erika Podest, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory From the UN conference on climate change, Durban, South Africa

The highlight of my day was being part of a panel discussion on “Viewing the Earth’s Climate from Space”, a NASA-sponsored event that provided an overview of space-based studies of the Earth’s climate system. The talks emphasized not only a global perspective, but the perspective from Africa as well. The panel was comprised of scientists Dr. Jack Kaye from NASA headquarters, Dr. Jeff Privette from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Dr. Yann Kerr from France’s Centre d’Etudes Spatiales de la BIOsphère, and me from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Our presentations covered a wide variety of science ‘products’ derived from satellite datasets that tell us about Earth’s climate. Jack Kaye gave a broad overview of NASA’s current abilities to study and monitor different aspects of Earth from space. I focused on the components of the water cycle that we can see from space, such as rainfall, snow, groundwater and soil moisture, and the way in which they affect vegetation growth, drought and floods. I also talked about the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite mission, a mission being led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that will study soil moisture from space.

Jeff Privette, from NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, brought the discussion into an operational context, emphasizing the key role of NOAA satellite data in monitoring our climate over multiple years. Finally, Yann Kerr talked about Europe’s satellite capabilities and the most recent results from the Soil Moisture Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission. The panel presentation was done on the hyperwall, which was an ideal venue to showcase the satellite products discussed. I thought our presentation went over very well — the room was packed and the audience engaged. After the presentation a number of questions were posed by audience members and by viewers in different countries who were watching the presentation as it was broadcasted online.

The other highlight of my day was giving a short hyperwall presentation on NASA satellites and then handing the podium to a panel discussion titled “Unlocking the Potential of Women to Combat Climate Change.” The panel was comprised of the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Mellane Verveer; the former President of Ireland, the honorary Mary Robinson; Socorro Flores Liera, Director General for Global Affairs for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Winnie Byanyima, Director of the United Nations Development Programme Gender Team; Bineta Diop, Executive Director and founder of Femmes Africa Solidarité; and other luminaries. The discussion focused on empowering women socially, politically and economically in the face of climate change. I was honored to hand the floor to such an extraordinary group of women. Had it been a rock concert, I would have felt like I was the opening band for U2.

Erika Podest with Melane Verveer, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.
Erika Podest with Melane Verveer, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.

Today was also the last day of the U.S. Center operations and all equipment was shut down after the last evening panel discussion. I was saddened that operations had come to an end but I was also very impressed to see how flawlessly everything had run. The State Department did an excellent job in organizing the US Center; each event had been meticulously planned and coordinated and the schedule ran like a Swiss clock. In addition, I think that the NASA hyperwall provided a unique opportunity for people to see NASA's capabilities to study Earth through satellite images. It also provided the wow factor that was unmatched to any other display at the conference.


Erika Podest is a scientist with the Water and Carbon Cycles Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a Visiting Associate Researcher in the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering (JIFRESSE) at UCLA. She focuses on using space satellites to monitor wetland ecosystems and seasonal freeze/thaw dynamics in the northern high latitudes of the globe, and improving our understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles and resources. Erika also leads a project that uses satellite data to study the palm swamp wetlands of the Amazon rainforest in order to better understand their contribution to the global carbon budget.

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A multi-faceted problem
Famine, forests and poverty
December 7, 2011
posted by Dr. Amber Jenkins
16:00 PST

Erika Podest

Dec 7, 2011

By Dr. Erika Podest, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory From the UN conference on climate change, Durban, South Africa

I can’t believe it is the middle of the week already. Time is flying by. Today I attended a number of panel discussions at the US Center that were focused on famine in Africa. Subsistence agriculture and herding are especially sensitive to climate change and so the United States Agency International Development (USAID) has set up a “Famine Early Warning System” in order to identify as early as possible agricultural drought that might lead to food insecurity. The system enables food supplies to be diverted to hard hit regions as needed. This is one aspect of the bigger picture of how climate change is driving people from their lands through floods and droughts, creating a new type of climate change refugee.

Today I also got the chance to peruse the exhibition hall and am impressed at the number of universities present as well as government, non-government and international organizations represented. As I walked around, I was reminded that this is the biggest climate change conference in the world. I ran into people representing environmental issues from all sorts of different countries, for example, an indigenous group from Bolivia who were there to attest that their communities are being harmed by local mining and their water resources are being contaminated. I also ran into three women from India who were waste pickers and whose livelihoods help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the waste sector.

Erika with chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall.
Erika with chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall.

On Wednesday afternoon I attended a special event entitled “Advancing Public-Private Partnerships for REDD+ and Green Growth” organized by Avoided Deforestation Partners. A number of high-level speakers were part of the event, including Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who delivered the keynote address. Ki-Moon called for more action to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, which account for nearly 20 percent of the world’s emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. He also stressed the need for a greater sense of urgency in combating climate change, the need for countries to put real funding towards this issue, and an alliance between business, government and local communities.

Erika with Wanjira Maathai.
Erika with Wanjira Maathai.

Distinguished panel members included Dr. Jane Goodall, considered to be the world’s expert on chimpanzees, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and Wanjira Maathai, daughter of the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, who was representing the Greenbelt Movement. As we heard, the biggest driver to deforestation is poverty. Other factors, such as corporate profits and governments selling concessions to mining and timber companies, also drive deforestation, and the private sector must help to come up with sustainable solutions. The biggest pressure facing forests comes from agriculture, and so the discussion touched on how to develop deforestation-free agriculture. The most effective way of combating global warming was identified as protecting and restoring tropical forests.

Climate change is a complex problem. It is inextricably linked with society, economics, politics, and people’s way of life. It’s going to take people from all walks of life to come together with a solution.


Erika Podest is a scientist with the Water and Carbon Cycles Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a Visiting Associate Researcher in the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering (JIFRESSE) at UCLA. She focuses on using space satellites to monitor wetland ecosystems and seasonal freeze/thaw dynamics in the northern high latitudes of the globe, and improving our understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles and resources. Erika also leads a project that uses satellite data to study the palm swamp wetlands of the Amazon rainforest in order to better understand their contribution to the global carbon budget.

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Working together
Kyoto's last chance?
December 6, 2011
posted by Dr. Amber Jenkins
16:00 PST

Erika Podest

By Dr. Erika Podest, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory From the UN conference on climate change, Durban, South Africa

The second week of the United Nations conference on climate change, COP17, is focused mostly on negotiating how solutions to climate change will be implemented. The first week (last week) was taken up with technical meetings and position papers.

I arrived early on Monday morning and am impressed by the rivers of people lining up to enter the conference. As I look around, I see people young and old from all races and cultures. Every country on Earth is represented here and I hear that around 15,000 people are attending. It seems like everyone that is related to climate change is here. An Earth scientist’s treasure trove of contacts!

The goal of COP17 is commitments. Commitments to policy action. Countries need to ensure that they can follow through with previous commitments on agreements by implementing actions at home. It is fitting that COP17 is being hosted in Africa since the continent is expected to experience the impact of climate change much more severely than other regions around the world. In addition, the African population is less prepared to deal with climate disasters, lacking proper infrastructure or excess funds to invest in the issue.

There is a dizzying array of events at the conference, to the point where it’s actually overwhelming. An entire pavilion is dedicated to exhibitions housing displays and information booths from government agencies, non-government organizations, international organizations and academic institutions. Another pavilion showcases nations’ efforts on combating climate change, and hosts the main conference center where the negotiations between governments are taking place. The African Pavilion houses an exhibition focused on Africa as well as the US and European Union Centers. In addition, there are lots of side events taking place, addressing climate change, how we can reduce the effects of climate change (“mitigation”), how we can adapt to those changes already happening (“adaptation”) and that are coming down the pipeline, and how we can implement these actions. I wish I could attend everything that is of interest, but I have not yet figured out how to clone myself!

Dr. Erika Podest explains the importance of cloud formation and distribution during a hyperwall presentation.
Dr. Erika Podest explains the importance of cloud formation and distribution during a hyperwall presentation.

The US Center is a Department of State public diplomacy initiative to inform on key climate programs and scientific research, highlighting US efforts to combat climate change. It features a series of events sponsored by organizations such as USGS, NOAA, USAID, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. The center features the NASA hyperwall, essentially a wall of TVs — 15 high-resolution monitors that help visualize large datasets. Though the US Center has a full daily agenda, 30-minute slots have been allotted between events to showcase data from NASA Earth science satellites and the climate models we work with, covering things like aerosols, the water cycle, glaciers, human impacts on the planet and ocean currents. There are about four NASA hyperwall presentations a day and as docent, I get to provide an explanation of the specific topic displayed. My colleague, Dr. Jack Kaye, from NASA HQ, also shares the responsibility.

Dr. Jack Kaye, Associate Director for Research for NASA’s Earth Science Division, explains the importance of atmospheric aerosols during a hyperwall presentation.
Dr. Jack Kaye, Associate Director for Research for NASA’s Earth Science Division, explains the importance of atmospheric aerosols during a hyperwall presentation.

For the past couple of days, I have spent most of my time at the US center listening to some fascinating talks discussing how to reduce emissions from the world’s forests (see previous entry for more information), clean energy, climate adaptation and mitigation, food security and policy, climate modeling, local community and government action. One of the most interesting talks involved discussion of how the Department of Defense is improving our understanding of climate change, how it can support international climate change adaptation efforts, and how it will respond to the challenges — strategic and operational — that we face because of climate change. Rear Admiral David Titley, director of the Navy’s Climate Change Task Force, gave an excellent talk about climate change and its effects on military resources, emphasizing the need for military readiness to such changes. I was impressed by his candor and straightforward nature in addressing issues faced by the Navy in the face of climate change.

This may be the last chance to salvage the Kyoto Protocol and a meaningful binding international deal on emissions.


Erika Podest is a scientist with the Water and Carbon Cycles Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a Visiting Associate Researcher in the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering (JIFRESSE) at UCLA. She focuses on using space satellites to monitor wetland ecosystems and seasonal freeze/thaw dynamics in the northern high latitudes of the globe, and improving our understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles and resources. Erika also leads a project that uses satellite data to study the palm swamp wetlands of the Amazon rainforest in order to better understand their contribution to the global carbon budget.

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The wood for the trees
Forests are part of the climate change solution
December 5, 2011
posted by Dr. Amber Jenkins
16:00 PST

Erika Podest

By Dr. Erika Podest, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory From the UN conference on climate change, Durban, South Africa

I have arrived in Durban, South Africa, to attend the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC) — the latest United Nations (UN) conference on climate change. I am here as part of the NASA component of the US delegation and my role is to represent NASA and inform the audience about how NASA satellites are a key component to studying and monitoring our changing planet.

Since today was Sunday, most COP17 activities were on a break, but I did attend a side event called Forest Day 5. It is probably COP17’s largest side event and one of the most intense and influential annual global events on the state of the world’s forests. It’s an opportunity for stakeholders from different backgrounds and regions to share their experiences and debate the pressing issues that forests are facing worldwide.

Now in its fifth year, Forest Day brings together world leaders, researchers, donors, policymakers, climate change negotiators, the media, non-government and intergovernmental organizations, indigenous people’s groups and other forest-dependent people.

Erika Podest 2
Erika at the UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa.

What do forests have to do with climate change? Well, as the UN explains, deforestation and forest degradation — through agricultural expansion, conversion to pastureland, infrastructure development, destructive logging and fires — account for nearly 20 percent of the world’s emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. This is more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector. Constraining climate change to within “safe” levels, such as keeping the world’s temperature rise to within about two degrees Celsius, will therefore have to involve reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s forests.

The main topic of discussion at Forest Day was the UN’s REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, a collaborative effort between countries to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. One of the goals is to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, thus offering incentives for developing countries to conserve trees, sustainably manage forests and enhance forest carbon stocks.

Talks focused on implementing a global business plan that not only reduces emissions, but also creates social and environmental benefits and improves quality of life. At this conference, the main thrust for REDD+ is to move from policy to implementation and action. Though great strides have been made towards this end, there is still much to achieve. The new REDD+ policy text emphasizes transparency, but fails to address how we will verify that countries are sticking to the plan. I think this issue of verification — that international policy and agreements are actually being adhered to — is an area that NASA could support, using the information it collects about our planet from space.

Someone that was especially remembered during Forest Day was Wangaari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient who recently passed away. She was an environmentalist and visionary from Kenya who through her Greenbelt Movement inspired millions of people across the world to take charge of their environment, the systems that govern them, their lives and their future. She was a great supporter of COP and had been present at Forest Day since its inception. Though it was a long day and I am jetlagged with the 10 hour time difference from home, my excitement keeps me awake and alert. I leave Forest Day with a renewed sense of responsibility for taking action and keeping Professor Wangaari’s legacy alive.


Erika Podest is a scientist with the Water and Carbon Cycles Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a Visiting Associate Researcher in the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering (JIFRESSE) at UCLA. She focuses on using space satellites to monitor wetland ecosystems and seasonal freeze/thaw dynamics in the northern high latitudes of the globe, and improving our understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles and resources. Erika also leads a project that uses satellite data to study the palm swamp wetlands of the Amazon rainforest in order to better understand their contribution to the global carbon budget.

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