Having attended an excellent briefing this fall called NOAA 101 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and further finding out that a former Fellow was working at the Boulder installation, I was quite interested in going for a visit. Like NIST, they are under the Department of Commerce, and I was very pleased to discover that the two research labs share the same campus. My Beloved Husband had not uttered a word of complaint as I drove him all around Colorado, but I have no doubt that he didn’t mind a more relaxed transition between our morning and afternoon nerd stops.
I had explained to each of our hosts that both my BH and I are Ph.D. chemists, so they shouldn’t spare the science. Our host at NOAA took me at my word, and we started off with a research chemist in the chemical sciences division. Here we learned about a plane that NOAA flies that is packed full of instruments to collect data about the atmosphere. (As a side note, I was fascinated that the plane is a C-130 J, the same workhorse plane that flies missions to Antarctica and that is the mainstay of the forest fire air tanker fleet.) By flying an extensive flight pattern over an area, they can measure atmospheric gases and determine the sources of emissions. For example in Los Angeles, if you added up all the methane emissions reported by all of the sources in the area, it only came to half of the emissions that were measured. Because an oil and gas pipeline has a different hydrocarbon emission signature than a rice field or a landfill, NOAA scientists could collect the atmospheric data and decipher where the extra emissions were coming from. The culprits were a much higher than reported level of emissions from oil and gas pipelines plus a change in rice field cultivation that hadn’t been figured into their reports. NOAA’s motto is, “We don’t trust- we verify.” They make entirely new measurements and question every assumption so that their final answer is not biased by, “Oh, well it couldn’t be this source.” I loved this chemical detective work!
Our next visit was with a scientist from the National Geophysical Data Center. He took us on a walking tour through the halls, and we stopped at informative posters spaced at intervals on the walls and representing the incredibly broad array of data they collect. As just a single example to share, NOAA is responsible for the famous pictures of the Earth at night. These are composites of many satellite passes since they need images of every area without clouds, and that can take several days. I was intrigued that the data were originally collected by the Department of Defense weather satellites. After the data were declassified and were to be discarded, NOAA asked to have the data, and they built the night time images from the DoD cast-offs. In addition to indicating where there is light pollution, where there is population, and where the standard of living is relatively high, real time night images can be used for more practical purposes as well. When refuges are moving from one area to another to escape war or famine, they will often build fires at night, so tracking those fires gives an idea of location and population of those people. After Hurricane Sandy, NOAA could also look at where the lights were not shining to establish the extent of power outages. All of that was on just one of the dozen posters we saw!
The short session with the man who studies paleoclimate was both fascinating and energizing. This scientist was extremely passionate about his work, and his face lit up when he talked about it. Our experience at the ice core lab at USGS two days earlier illustrated just one aspect of the paleoclimate field that tries to use a variety of evidence to establish the historical climate record. For example, I hadn’t realized that like trees, corals also display annual growth patterns. In the case of corals and plankton, the scientists can not only figure out the temperature at the time of formation, but they can also get a sense of the availability of nutrients as well as possibly the pH of the water. The idea is not only to look at what the temperature was, but also at how ocean conditions changed and how organisms reacted to those changes.
Stalactites and stalagmites also show annual growth patterns, but in most caves, it is not acceptable to remove these structures. As a compromise, now and then a stalagmite may be removed, but it must be replaced with an identical replica. One of the props in the room was a stalagmite replica that had been slightly imperfect and unacceptable for replacing the original, so we were looking at a slightly subpar fake stalagmite.
We had a short visit with a scientist who I had met during his visit to DC as well. I remember when I first started in the office that at every meeting, I had to introduce myself to everyone because I didn’t know anyone. In contrast, my “boss” who was showing me the ropes seemed to know absolutely everyone! Thus it was with great pleasure that I was able to greet someone for a second time. This scientist showed us how all of the air samples collected from locations around the world are processed and measured. I hadn’t thought much about those details, but the samples are collected in gas-tight flasks, which are then packed into rugged packing cases to protect them during transport. On just one project, they process over 18,000 flasks a year.
Our next stop was in a room they call “Science on the square,” which is dominated by a huge screen displaying eight different dynamic data sets. It was a bit of a thrill to see output from one of the GOES weather satellites since we had a complete lesson on those at LASP the day before. In the lower left corner of the bank of monitors was displayed ocean temperatures, and in the lower left corner, they were monitoring the weather over the North Pole and the extent of the Arctic sea ice. A major take-home lesson from this session was how much conditions in one part of the globe can affect another area. Last summer for a brief time, the entire Greenland ice sheet melted enough to put a thin layer of water across the surface. It froze again, but this phenomenon usually only happens every hundred years or so. Looking back at the weather record, it became obvious that the melting was triggered by the intense drought in the Midwest last summer. That high pressure air mass swept across the US, swung around Canada, and caused the melting when it hit Greenland.
The term “atmospheric river” had come up during our USGS session, and I finally got a complete explanation. Apparently up in the atmosphere, water vapor often moves in narrow bands that look like rivers. Unlike rivers, they don’t have default locations like a river bed, but when these atmospheric rivers finally come down to earth, we get a deluge of water that causes flooding and landslides. If those deluge locations can be identified and predicted in advance, preparations can be made to deal with the resulting flash floods and landslides.
One of the super cool parts of our tour was the Science on a Sphere project. In the center of the room was a sphere approximately four feet in diameter, and four different projectors created a seamlessly integrated image all the way around the ball. Apparently the prototype was a single projector on a beach ball in someone’s garage, but the technology has advanced significantly since then. The whole world could be displayed at one time, but global data sets could also be superimposed. In one animation, we could see the current weather and the rotation of the globe. Then we got to see the “business as usual” scenario projecting the impact of global warming out to 2100. Somehow seeing the entire globe in hot shades of yellow and scorching areas colored in red really drove home the need to take action on climate change. We also could see an animation of all the ocean currents that feed warm and cold water all around the globe.
Then we got to explore the creativity of the team. For example, in one animation, we saw every plane that flew over the course of a day along with the superimposed dark and light of day and night. So starting in Europe, as dawn hit, we could see the planes starting to stream around, especially heading toward the US. As dawn hit the US, we could see similar activity start and become frenetic during mid-day, only to peter out as night fell. Then we saw an animation of a dark blue globe and glowing white lines connecting many different locations. That was the map of a million pairs of Facebook friends, so we could see what countries used Facebook and which didn’t. Lastly, we saw the signals from every radio-collared sea turtle in the Atlantic superimposed on the ocean temperature. It became very apparent that the turtles have a very specific water temperature that they preferred, and they rarely strayed from that band.
Overall, it was an amazing afternoon of creative and innovative science.
You can see some examples and the scope of the Science on the Sphere project at (http://www.sos.noaa.gov/What_is_SOS/index.html