From the time that I visited the USGS facility in Reston, VA, I knew that I wanted to go visit the facility in Colorado. Science plus my adopted state- what could be more fun? I was especially excited that my Beloved Husband was able to join me for this leg of the trip so we could indulge our nerdiness together.
Our first stop was the USGS National Ice Core Lab (NICL, pronounced “nickel.”) I was a little overwhelmed that a gang of seven scientists and staffers all took time out from their work while we were there to be available to us. They started off by doing a tag-team PowerPoint presentation giving us background on the ice cores. I had known that it is the information from the ice cores that gives the strong historic climate record, known as paleoclimate, that correlate atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane concentrations with temperature, but I hadn’t really thought about how all of that worked. So we got to see pictures of traveling to the McMurdo base in Antarctica and from there to the base camp for gathering the ice cores. The latest core, the Waste-Divide core, is the longest continuous core in existence, and it took five or six summers to complete. There was a core drilled in a similar environment in Greenland with the express purpose of comparing data from two hemispheres in similar core samples.
Ice core samples are extremely valuable because it is possible to date them reliably and determine the atmospheric composition during a specific year with only minor amounts of uncertainty. The deepest core, the Vostok core, goes back 850,000 years, which is young compared to the millions of years that can be obtained from deep sea cores. The disadvantage of the deep sea cores is that they are much harder to date, so there is a lot more uncertainty with those measurements.
Two short videos that I really enjoyed were drilling the cores and then preparing the samples. The cores are pulled out by a rather complex drill system that extracts the ice in about three meter segments, which are then labeled and packaged up to be shipped back to the States. From those three meter segments, the cores are sliced lengthwise twice to provide samples for isotopic analysis, chemical analysis, and gas composition analysis. I got a smile out of their use of a band saw and a planer, both more typically used in woodworking, to prep the samples.
The director of the project talked about some of the research that is enabled by the ice cores at the planetary, macroscopic, and microscopic levels. Her three major take home points about why all of this matters:
1) Because of the effect of melting land-based ice on sea level change
2) Because of the effects of melting ice on atmospheric circulation
3) Because melting glaciers provide water for some 77 million people around the world, and when those glaciers are gone, there will be no water.
At that point, we bundled up for a short visit to the ice core lab itself. The outer room was a balmy -14 degrees Celsius so that the scientists could work for short times in a somewhat warmer room. Even so, the computer in that room was encased in an insulating box since electronics get very cranky at that temperature. Our visit was short enough that my camera was able to last long enough to do the job. My BH and I were quite amused by the whimsy displayed by the scientists in terms of penguins and Mr. Freeze, the icy villain from the Batman movies.
The storage freezer for the cores is a frigid -36 degrees Celsius, and I felt my jeans freeze stiff almost as soon as I walked in. The most recent Waste-Divide core occupies more than a full wall of storage, and the full lab contains more than 17,000 meters of cores. We got to see several samples- a bag containing samples that looked like the consistency of Styrofoam, and a core from the bottom of the Waste-Divide displaying the perfectly clear ice typical of Antarctica.
After that fabulous tour, we hopped in the car and went onto Golden for the second half of our USGS visit. At the Geologic Hazards Science Center, we were welcomed by yet another group of scientists who were all ready to tell us about their work. We started with two of the lead scientists of the small but mighty group who monitors earthquake hazards around the world. I was fascinated by their “Shake Map” program which tries to provide information to people about where the damage is most likely so that the areas of largest threat can be surveyed first. The program is made public for others to use, so corporations such as Walmart and Target use it to evaluate store damage, and transportation departments use it to prioritize which bridges and overpasses need to be inspected first.
California has an extensive sensor network, but on the East Coast, where earthquakes are more rare, the USGS had to rely on other options. Through their earthquake.usgs.gov site, the USGS earthquake team was able to collect vast amounts of information through social media after the Virginia-based earthquake two years ago. With all the data people volunteered on their “Did you feel it?” site, they were able to publish a much more accurate shake map and project damages to property as well. Their monitoring system is worldwide, and they do an amazing amount with a very small staff.
Our second presentation was by the scientist who heads up the geomagnetic storm research group. They operate all of the land-based sensors which study the Earth’s magnetic field that contribute hugely to the National Space Weather Program. Magnetic storms can cause massive induced currents that tend to surge and knock out our power grid, so understanding how the magnetic fields of the sun and the Earth interact, as well as being able to predict and deal with these storms is critical to business as usual.
Last on the docket for the morning was the scientist who runs the landslide modeling program. He first described the various types of landslides and then explained how the group has determined how much rain has to fall in various areas before there is a risk of landslide. I expect that these massive debris slides will be a major hazard after Colorado’s wildfires, and it was both exciting and a little freaky to watch videos of what may happen in the future.
I was deeply touched that all of these scientists took the time to tell Steve and I about their programs and especially that they took me at my word that I wanted to dig into the science. In case I didn’t already know, I got the strong message of how invaluable these programs are to all the people of the United States and of the world, and we all agreed that we saw the strong support for science in the President’s budget as a good sign.
USGS was only half of our nerdy day; I’ll continue about the Rocky Mountain Research Station in a separate post.