October 25, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Climate models, volcanoes and population control

Public interest in climate change

From Sharon Ray, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Green club

Sixty-three percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why. That's according to the results of a new report out from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The study has identified a number of important gaps in public knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change (which Big Fat Planet will write about in more detail here later.

To help remedy some of the confusion, last weekend NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena hosted a public forum on climate change. Gray skies overhead caused some worries about attendance, but 160 people from the local community came to hear scientists talk about their latest research. The talks included discussion of:

  • The planet's carbon cycle, clouds and ozone
  • How NASA’s upcoming Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission will help us determine Earth’s carbon dioxide sources (where it’s generated) and sinks (where it’s absorbed)
  • How scientists use satellites to study Earth’s atmosphere
  • How the greenhouse effect is a good thing (it’s made life on Earth possible by keeping the temperature warm enough to be habitable), but it’s the slight change in the balance of gases that is causing the Earth to warm
  • What’s causing the loss of ice mass on our planet, the difference between sea ice and land ice and how each is affected by climate change
  • Sea level rise, and the fact that the rate of the rise is increasing
  • How to maintain balance in writing news stories on climate change science without giving undue weight to non-science-based opinion
  • What we can do about climate change - it's about more than just recycling
  • Promoting green practices locally

Audience questions varied from "Are climate models getting too complicated to understand?" to "How do volcanoes affect climate?" and "Why are the big countries not on board with climate regulation?" And the $64,000 question: "When it comes to discussions of climate change, why is population control not talked about as a possible solution?" On this unpalatable issue, scientist JoBea Holt relayed findings from population studies that suggest that if girls are educated, it tends to reduce the number of babies, and that once family incomes and health improve, families don’t need to have lots of children to insure that some grow to adulthood.

Lots of food for thought, but hopefully a useful event in terms of getting some of the scientific knowledge out there. JPL’s Green Club organized the whole shebang, and will repeat it next year. If you missed it, and want to catch up on what was said, visit our USTREAM archive. The speakers’ slides can be found here.

Sharon is an outreach coordinator for NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument.

October 21, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Tropical Storm Danielle

If you were a space traveler ...

Astronaut photograph ISS024-E-12954, taken August 30, 2010.

Astronaut photograph ISS024-E-12954, taken August 30, 2010. Larger version available here.

From Robert Simmon, NASA Earth Observatory

... this is one of the views you might glimpse. Strong convection created these “hot towers” near the eye of Tropical Storm Danielle.

Cross-posted from the Earth Observatory's blog, Elegant Figures. Robert is a visualizer for the Earth Observatory.

October 20, 2010, 17:00 PDT

The next generation

Their planet, their future

Generation Y. Born between about the mid-1970s and early 2000s, they're tech-savvy, don't think a job is forever, and are accustomed to a faster pace of life than previous generations. They're witnessing a time of great change — demographically, economically and environmentally, and are the first generation to wake up to the reality of climate change. Gen Y is, like it or not, going to have to deal with climate change and its ramifications in the decades ahead.

But are they ready for this? How much do they really know about climate change? And how much do they care? Our student intern Holly Shaftel talked to some of her peers to find out more.

October 13, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Solar conventions

Cultural retrofit

Solar panels

Last night I zipped into downtown Los Angeles to catch the Solar Power International 2010 convention at the L.A. Convention Center. A fantastic free “Open to the Public Night” opened up the cavernous exhibition halls to members of the public, and offered talks on climate change and how solar energy technology can be adopted at the state level and individual level.

I listened to a session by Jeffery Wolfe, CEO of groSolar, who was speaking on behalf of The Climate Project. His talk ran the whole gamut: from the scientific evidence for climate change (lots of NASA data and awesome space images shown), to the idea that climate change is a symptom of the way we’ve been (ab)using our planet, to the concept that we are currently witnessing a collision between human civilization and the Earth. Wolfe said this collision is being caused by three factors:

  1. Population explosion: We’re on track to have 9.2 billion people in the world by 2050. We’re rapidly changing the face of our planet in many areas — think mountain top removal in West Virginia, or deforestation in Brazil to make room for cattle and commercial agriculture.
  2. A scientific and technological revolution: Our daily habits, combined with new technology (e.g. the ability to pump significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere for over 100 years), are bringing dramatically altered consequences (e.g. global warming and climate change, acidification of the oceans, extreme weather, etc, etc.).
  3. Our way of thinking.

“We’ve got to motivate people. We’re American. So it’s got to be with the pocketbook,” said Wolfe. He says that the way forwards in reducing carbon emissions and changing people’s habits is through a cap and trade system, which puts a higher price on carbon (that reflects its environmental impact) and limits the amount of carbon any company/entity can emit. A tax on carbon, he argued, would not be good enough as it doesn’t place a cap on emissions — the dirtiest polluters could, if they wanted, simply pay more tax and continue to emit at the same level.

On solar technology, Wolfe believes that, more than anything else, we’re going to need a radical cultural change in order to adopt it as a leading source of energy in the U.S. and worldwide. Several other nations including China are way ahead of the U.S. in the solar game. Silicon Valley’s innovators, considered at the forefront of solar development in the U.S., are already scrambling to retool to catch up on Chinese manufacturers, which are heavily subsidized by their government. But Wolfe doesn’t think that government subsidies are needed and that the U.S. solar industry can stand on its own two feet.

Comparing the challenge to stabilize our climate and preserve a habitable planet to the efforts of World War II, when America retooled its economy in just a couple of years, Wolfe said, “We can do this. It’s not the hardest thing we’ve ever done.”

Elsewhere in the news: If you’re a space geek AND a solar technology buff, read up here on how technology from NASA — developed for sensors on the Mars rovers and landers — is helping keep solar panels in the desert clean. The approach uses a transparent, electrically sensitive material to coat the panels and repel dust and grit, which can decrease a solar panel’s power output by 40 percent or so.

October 11, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Pick of the pics

River of red

Courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory. Image created by Jesse Allen, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team.

Courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory. Image created by Jesse Allen, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team.

Hungary toxic sludge.
Courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory. Image created by Jesse Allen, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team.

The toxic sludge disaster in Hungary is visible from space. This natural-color image, courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory, shows the area as of 9 October, 2010, five days after an accident at the Ajkai Timföldgyár alumina (aluminum oxide) plant in the west of the country. A gigantic reservoir unleashed torrents of caustic liquid waste when part of its container wall broke, flooding nearby villages, towns and fields, killing several people and destroying homes. The image, taken by the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite, also shows a second, bright blue waste reservoir belonging to the plant.

The region is bracing itself for a potential second wave of red toxic sludge should the remaining walls of the reservoir give way. The sludge entered the River Danube on 7 October, moving towards Croatia, Serbia and Romania.

October 5, 2010, 17:00 PDT

Hurricane factoids

Did you know?

A dust storm, hundreds of thousands of square miles in size, moving from the Saharan air layer over Africa into the eastern Atlantic Ocean. The image was captured by the Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS) instrument on February 26, 2000. Credit: SeaWiFS/Ocean Color Team. Courtesy of this page.

A dust storm, hundreds of thousands of square miles in size, moving from the Saharan air layer over Africa into the eastern Atlantic Ocean. The image was captured by the Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS) instrument on February 26, 2000. Credit: SeaWiFS/Ocean Color Team. Courtesy of this page.

2010 has seen quite an active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. Let’s take a look at a few storm facts:

  • In 2010, there were 14 named storms, of which 7 were hurricanes and 5 were major hurricanes (that is, category-3, 4 and 5 ones). Hurricane activity this year was about 1.5 times the median hurricane activity level.

  • A hurricane is an intense tropical storm. Tropical storms form over warm tropical oceans when local sea surface temperatures are above 26.5°C (80°F) through a depth of at least 50 meters (160 ft). Under these conditions, evaporation from the ocean surface creates very high humidity in the atmosphere, which in turn generates thunderstorms.

  • Hurricane forecasters were pretty much bang on target this year in terms of the number of hurricanes they predicted.

  • A surefire way to kill a hurricane? Add something called “vertical wind shear” — essentially a change in wind speed and direction with height. It stops the storm from forming in its tracks by ripping it apart.

  • Another way to kill a hurricane? Whip up a wind across the deserts of northern Africa. Dust gets swept up into the air and helps damp down developing storms. (In fact, it’s the effect of the dust combined with vertical wind shear and super-dry air that’s the killer.)

  • Monsoons in West Africa strongly influence hurricane activity on seasonal and decade-to-decade timescales.

  • In the Atlantic, more than half of tropical storms and weak hurricanes and 85 percent of major hurricanes come from Africa.

  • Many hurricanes are born in the “main development region” (MDR), which includes the Caribbean Sea and tropical Atlantic Ocean between latitudes of about 10°N and 20°N. When sea surface temperatures in the MDR are much above average during hurricane season, a very active season typically results (if there is no El Niño event present.)

But is climate change responsible for brewing more, and stronger, hurricanes? There’s a school of thought that says that climate change should fuel more hurricanes and more intense ones, because as the planet warms, ocean waters warm and sea surface temperature rises.

In a paper published earlier this year in Science, Thomas R. Knutson, of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and co-authors suggest that we should expect an increase in the frequency of the strongest hurricanes in the Atlantic, roughly by a factor of two by the end of the century, despite a decrease in the overall number of hurricanes. “But we should not expect this trend to be clearly detectable until we near the end of the century, given a scenario in which CO2 [carbon dioxide] doubles by 2100.” The relationship will become more apparent as we improve our understanding and data and as the climate continues to warm.

(Knutson offers a review of the published research findings on this topic to date here.)

In the meantime, the storm-chasing will continue.