Category Archives: Colorado

Estes Park

 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

 

With all the policy issues and all the science I had packed into the trip to Colorado, I couldn’t imagine a visit without experiencing the glory of the Rockies from within the mountain range rather than from the high plains looking up.  The logical spot to visit was Estes Park, which is home to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Yes, friends, of course it was a stamp in my Parks Passport.

As you might imagine from the number of posts related to this trip, it was mostly non-stop action.  My Beloved Husband and I were thus pleased to take it easy on our final whole day of the trip.  After a leisurely morning of organizing and compressing our possessions and the large stack of paper we had acquired, we eventually set off for nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. We consulted with the rangers at the Visitors Center about possible activities, but lacking snow shoes, our options were somewhat limited.  We ended up driving the Trail Ridge Road to the point where it was closed for the winter.  The road was clear beyond that point, so we walked further up the road to look at the scenery.  It turned out that no matter how carefully I had planned for gradually increasing our elevation, we still were not well-adjusted to the much higher elevation of the park (around 10,000 ft) so there was a certain amount of huffing and puffing even though the incline wasn’t severe.  Still, we had a wonderful drive, a lovely walk, and the freshly snow-covered mountains were beautiful.

A Rocky Mountain High

A Rocky Mountain High

We both enjoyed strolling about Estes Park, which is tourist town with a frontier flavor.  We arrived in town toward the end of the annual duck race, which apparently involves participants purchasing plastic ducks which are all released upstream and float down to town.  There were plenty of people clustered around the bridges and accessible spots on the water to cheer on their yellow and orange friends.  The duck race annually marks the very beginning of tourist season, but with the recent snow and a bit of a nip in the air, the turnout was not quite what they hoped.  Indeed it was more than a little sad to see restaurant patios all prepared for outdoor seating with the tables topped by six inches or more of snow.  I still refused to complain about the precipitation in the face of the ongoing drought, but the locals took care of the grumbling for me.

Early in our romance, my BH learned that I am a horse racing fan for three days a year- the days of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.  I attribute it to reading “The Black Stallion” series as a youth and to being at a very impressionable age when Affirmed became the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978.  He was ridden to victory by18-year-old jockey, Steve Cauthen, who was really dreamy, if rather short.  Anyway, my BH and I have an annual date to watch the Kentucky Derby together, and we were quite pleased that in spite of the time difference between Churchill Downs and Colorado, we stopped for a beverage at exactly the right time to watch the pre-race coverage.  We each chose a horse to cheer for: my BH chose, “It’s My Lucky Day” in honor of our spectacular vacation, and I chose, “Normandy Invasion,” since I have commented several times that after mastering the logistics of this vacation, I was more than ready to organize the D-Day beach landings.  Neither one of our horses finished in the money, but because my horse finished fourth, my BH had to pay the tab.

After a wonderful dinner at a barbeque restaurant, we started the drive back to Denver to be close by for our early morning flights the next day.  Overall it was an amazing trip that was everything I had wanted it to be.  I got to see firsthand some of the people and resources I had been working on, and I gained an even stronger connection to my adopted state.  I did not intentionally work for an office that represented a state of such extensive scientific and natural resources, but I’m glad I took advantage of that bounty.

I will end with one last story to summarize how much my fellowship has influenced me.  I had been commenting to people all during the trip that my world view had changed significantly since working on Colorado issues, but there was one moment that illustrated it most vividly.  As we were driving out of the mountains, we rounded a curve and my BH said, “Wow, look at that!”  I replied, “I know!  Wow, I wonder whose water that is!”  He looked at me oddly and explained that he had been looking at the fascinating striated layers of the rock on the mountain.  Somewhat sheepishly, I explained that what caught my eye was the big water diversion pipe that passed overhead.

Big Thompson diversion

Big Thompson diversion

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

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!

Growth patterns from a slice of coral

Growth patterns from a slice of coral

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.

The defective fake stagmite

The defective fake stagmite

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.

Gas collection flask for atmospheric sampling

Gas collection flask for atmospheric sampling

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.

Science on a Square

Science on a Square

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.

Science on a Sphere weather

Science on a Sphere weather

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.

Science on a Sphere Ocean currents

Science on a Sphere Ocean currents

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

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National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST)

IMG_4613

In November after an article came out about in Chemical and Engineering News about the American Chemical Society Science Policy Fellows, I received an email with an invitation to visit the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder to give a talk.  It fit in beautifully with my itinerary, and I was very pleased to go learn more about this federal agency.

NIST has the distinction of being the only federal agency that is required by the Constitution.  My host was able to quote Article I, Section 8 that requires Congress “to Fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.”  Because this provision is really about sharing common units for trade, NIST is housed in the Department of Commerce.  I had known that NIST has the task of coordinating cybersecurity education and standards for the federal government, but I knew far less about how all the standards worked.  From our visit to LASP, my Beloved Husband and I also knew that NIST played a role in calibrating instruments for satellites, but that work is apparently carried out in the Maryland facility.  It was a pleasure to get a better understanding of some of the NIST work in the chemical sciences.

There were two projects in particular that I learned about that caught my attention.  One of the jobs of the fuels group is to measure and characterize fuels extremely exactly.  Often they will have to create new methods of measurement to get the types of data they need.  They were invaluable when NASA made the changeover from disposable rocket fuel tanks to tanks that could be recovered, refilled and reused.  NIST helped make sure that the fuels would not cause problems with the reuse technology.  NIST also works extensively with the aviation industry.  I admit I was a bit surprised that four different fuels that all passed the required specifications had very different energy contents.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be flying a long flight if I didn’t know there was enough energy in the fuel to get to my destination!

A bit of a side project sprang from the need to find bodies that are buried underground.  My BH, who has a wealth of random knowledge, immediately identified two of the characteristic chemicals from the decomposition of a body as putracene and cadaverene.  After a certain amount of time, dogs’ noses are not sensitive enough to detect the odor of those chemicals anymore, and the group was working on a portable sample collector that would allow a law enforcement agent to collect a bunch of samples and then get an idea of where to dig to find the body.

For my talk, I discussed the role of science in policy, and I came up with four different options.  Scientific societies often do some policy work, obviously my fellowship from the ACS is an option, but there are also hearings and briefings as well interacting with Congressional offices as a constituent.  In describing my own fellowship, I discussed a few of the bigger projects on which I’ve worked, and it was great fun to have my own photos of the Rio Grande and of the Waldo Canyon burn area to share.  Since it was a Colorado group, I knew that these topics would be of particular interest.  They were a very receptive audience, which translated to their laughing at my jokes, and I hope I will get other opportunities to do variations on this same talk.

Doing a talk on my fellowship was very different from a standard chemistry talk which always starts from what data I have on hand (or hope I might manage to squeak out before I actually give the talk.)  When I was struggling with the format, I decided to ask a group of my fellow Fellows what they thought was important.  The first suggestion was to do a “textile” talk, which involves lots of pictures, lots of stories, and very few words.  That turned out to be a brilliant plan since it was extremely visual, and I do love to tell stories.  The second suggestion was to explain how to do an effective meeting with a Congressional office.  That turned out to be another brilliant idea since the person in charge of multiple research groups sat down to chat with me afterwards about strategies for interacting with and educating Congressional staff.

At one point when I was chatting with my host, I had mentioned a story about the Congressional Research Service.  When the topic came up again, my host commented that he actually did some work for CRS.  I thought that was great, and knowing that there are several hundred folks who work for CRS, he hesitantly asked if I might know the particular analyst with whom he consults.  In one of those “It’s a small world,” moments, I indeed had worked with this particular analyst on at least two different projects, and I enjoyed having this insight into one of the ways in which CRS collects information.

NIST is not as flashy or fancy as some of the other federal agencies, but since they provide a rock solid scientific foundation for measurements, they are absolutely essential for national and international consistency.  That idea was driven home when I looked up to check the time.  The digital readout on the wall was accompanied by a sign saying, “NIST Colorado Atomic Clock Time,” which is the official time standard for the whole U.S.

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Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP)

Welcome to LASP

Welcome to LASP

After the amazing visit at NREL, I didn’t think there was any way to avoid an anti-climactic afternoon, but the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder sustained our interest and our energy.  LASP is one of seven research institutes at UC Boulder.  They don’t give degrees, but they do employ a large number of undergraduate and graduate students.  Their positions are highly sought-after, so they get the cream of the crop.  The aerospace industry has a considerable presence in Colorado, but my Beloved Husband’s UK citizenship precluded our visiting those companies.  LASP works extensively on satellites, so they proved to be a magnificent alternative.

The entrance hall of the LASP laboratory building was almost a mini-Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, including an engineering back-up version of the Mariner 6 and 7 satellites that explored the polar regions of Mars.  At the time it was built, solar cells were so incredibly expensive that they didn’t have the funds to put real solar cells on the mock-up.  There are a few real solar cells to test the circuits, but the rest are just ceramic tiles.  My BH pointed out that at the Smithsonian, they don’t allow you behind the ropes to take pictures, but here we were encouraged to duck behind for the best photo.

Laura, BH, and the Mariner satellite

Laura, BH, and the Mariner satellite

At some point, we were discussing the TOMS satellites that map stratospheric ozone, and one of our hosts told us a great story.  He explained that the Mariner explorations of Mars demonstrated that there was interesting chemistry that happened at the planetary poles.  It was because of this discovery on another planet that satellites and ground-based operations started measuring and monitoring the atmospheric composition at Earth’s poles.  If not for the missions to Mars, we might not have discovered the Antarctic ozone hole, and we wouldn’t have had a chance to act to fix the problem.  That is an excellent argument for the need to explore other planets.

Our hosts at LASP were three magnificently quintessential nerds.  One was a physicist, one an electrical engineer, and one an aerospace engineer.  My BH and I recognized kindred spirits who simply loved their jobs and loved to talk with people who were interested and excited by the topic.  They showed us around the entrance hall including miniatures of a number of satellites that had carried their instruments.  In display cases, they also pointed out examples of their efforts to reduce the size and power consumption of numerous instrument.  As they pointed out, in space there is no chance to go and repair a malfunctioning system, so everything needs to work reliably a million times or more.

a few of the micro-sized advances

a few of the micro-sized advances

The instruments they build work both on satellites that face the sun and satellites that face the Earth.  At the moment, LASP is doing part of the work on the next generation of GOES weather satellites, called GOES-R.  Over the United States, there is always one GEOS weather satellite over the East Coast, one over the West Coast, a third that can be moved about in case of failure of one of the first two, and yet another ready to be launched in case of mass failure of multiple satellites.  Thus for the next generation technology, the LASP group is preparing four replicate EXIS instruments, one for each of the four new GOES-R satellites.  For a lab that previously felt that they specialized in prototypes, or instruments made a single time for a specific purpose, this was a new development.

The EXIS instrument for the new GOES-R weather satellites

The EXIS instrument for the new GOES-R weather satellites

The first of the EXIS instruments that we saw sat proudly on a cart behind a window for all to see.  Of all the many instruments to go on the new GOES-R satellites, EXIS is the first to be ready, and they are rather proud of beating out all the other companies for the honor.  (I saw the press release after I returned to DC and was pretty thrilled that I understood the significance.)  This EXIS instrument detects solar flares as part of the larger Space Weather project.  Solar flares in the extreme ultraviolet range are often precursors to Coronal Mass Ejections, which is the sun spitting out matter.  If these ejections are directed toward the Earth, they can cause massive electromagnetic disruptions in power grids and communication systems, so these solar flares are the first indicators that service providers should take measures to prevent problems in the next day or two.

The second EXIS instrument was at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) on the East Coast undergoing some calibration, but the third EXIS was being aligned in a different lab at LASP.  We donned static-proof coats to enter the optics lab, and we had a delightful time chatting with the lead optic engineer inside.  I asked if it was tedious to align the same type of instrument multiple times, but I wasn’t surprised to be told that even though each instrument was built to the same specifications, each unit had its own quirks and personalities that made it slightly different from the others.  My BH and I agreed that it was fascinating to see all the stages of construction of this instrument that would fly on a satellite and help monitor space weather.

In my spiffy static-proof coat

In my spiffy static-proof coat

Everyone agreed that constructing and optimizing these instruments, which would fly in Low Earth Orbit, was far easier than satellites that fly farther out and must be tested and calibrated in vacuum chambers.  This picture shows one of the huge vacuum chambers that is used for those high orbit satellite instruments.

Just one of the vacuum chambers

Just one of the vacuum chambers

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite control room

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite control room

Another function performed at LASP is that they are mission control for several different satellites.  Students get extensive training before they are able to work in mission control, and there is always a staff scientist present for supervision, but I couldn’t help thinking what an amazing college job that must be.  There are three low Earth orbit satellites that pass through 15 times per day, and then the Kepler satellite, which trails behind Earth, only checks in every few days.  Kepler monitors the same area of space all the time, and by looking for variations in light intensity, Kepler is designed to look for Earth-like planets.  I’ve included a picture of me with our spectacular hosts in front of Kepler’s mission control room.

Nerding it up at the Kepler Mission control

Nerding it up at the Kepler Mission control

A mutual interest in the space program is what sparked the romance between my BH and I, so it will always be a special part of our relationship.  It was particularly wonderful to share that affection for space with such gifted scientists and engineers who so generously gave their time and knowledge to us on our visit.

I found one more picture after I finished writing, and since it is another example of quirky scientists and engineers, I thought I’d include it as well.

Mr. T. defends the lab

Mr. T. defends the lab

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National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL)

NREL in the snow

NREL in the snow

Of all the federal research labs in Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) is considered to be the crown jewel.  NREL is a one-of-a-kind lab that does research pushing the frontiers of renewable energy technologies.  Most of the other federal energy labs around the country are legacies of the nuclear era and continue to have some kind of mission in that area.  NREL is the only facility in the Department of Energy’s portfolio that does not deal with nuclear energy in some way, and it is the only unit that focuses on promoting solar, wind, biomass, and other renewable energy technologies.

Welcome to NREL

Welcome to NREL

I confess I was not quite prepared for the welcome that I received as I entered the site.  My Beloved Husband was enchanted that my name was up in lights as a visiting dignitary, and I did my best to take it in stride.  This small town girl will never be anything by wowed by that sort of treatment.  Parking under the solar array that provides energy for electric vehicle charging stations gave us a good indication that this facility would be way out in front of any group we had ever encountered dealing with energy.

We parked under these solar panels

We parked under these solar panels

After a two-on-two presentation that was an overview of NREL, we started with a tour of the office building we were in.  Not only does NREL do research on how to improve renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, and biofuel, they also have a group dedicated to improving building energy efficiency.  Thus all of the buildings are designed not only to maximize energy efficiency but also to test out new technologies.  The building we were in was a LEED platinum level building that was something like 50-70% more efficient than standard building codes.  All of the buildings are sited with their long axes east-to-west so that they can take advantage of passive solar energy along their long north and south walls.  The south-facing windows are all shielded with some sort of bonnet or giant blinds to bounce the natural light inside while keeping the summer heat out.  I especially liked the electrochromic windows, whose tinting could be altered at the push of a button.  It had snowed the day before our visit, but I could still envision having meetings out on the shaded balconies at the ends of each floor.

The NREL campus (minus the snow)

The NREL campus (minus the snow)

Air flow was also taken seriously.  The roofs were angled up so that heat can rise and escape out the upper windows.  Printers and copiers are tucked away in their own room so that the sound and the smell wouldn’t affect people, as well as because when people must get up to go get their output, they think twice about printing, thus saving paper and energy.  The ventilation systems don’t actually produce any sound, but there was a white noise system that could be adjusted to increase the background noise to mute conversations more effectively.  There were also “huddle rooms” for small meetings, phone rooms for private conversations, and quiet rooms for people to take health-related breaks (such as for migraines) or for nursing mothers to pump milk.

Office work space

Office work space

When we proceeded on to the building housing the biofuel research, we also learned about how much the facility looks to the future.  Because they had several shovel-ready projects, they were able to take advantage of stimulus funds, which has allowed them to consolidate various groups from leased space elsewhere to a single campus.  When those buildings were planned, they were designed with expansion in mind so that equipment can be added if new projects are authorized.  Indeed, the whole facility has been mapped out so that the sites of future buildings have already been designated.  Because the whole campus has been planned with great foresight, those buildings will take advantage of the same infrastructure, the same east-west siting, and will be able to hook seamlessly into the existing buildings.

One of the biofuels reactors

One of the biofuels reactors

The Biofuels facility seemed to be either a plumber’s dream or a plumber’s nightmare.  My BH has had some experience with industrial-level installations, but this was the first time I had seen a reactor system that was actually about three floors high with a process on one floor feeding down to the next reactor a floor below.

One of NREL’s strengths is they serve as a business incubator, and they encourage collaborative work.  Thus a business can use their facility to create or test a new technology or businesses can license technology that has been created at NREL.  I liked that their mission focused so much on different ways of sharing information and ideas.

All of the wind technology is focused at a different location about 15 miles away, so my favorite part was the solar research.  Outside one building was a veritable sun garden of photovoltaic (solar) arrays, which are being tested and monitored.  I don’t think I had appreciated the different varieties of arrays since I usually see the typical blue-celled silicon panels, but there are also black panels of a different formulation, and there are advances in concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) to get more of the sun’s energy converted into usable electricity.

Inside the solar research lab

Inside the solar research lab

Inside the solar labs are numerous high tech pieces of equipment for fabricating and testing solar cell technologies.  I especially liked the “pods,” which were portable carts whose heights could be adjusted to dock with various instruments.  Many of the technologies get built under an inert atmosphere to prevent contamination, and the pods allow those cells to be moved around and measured without exposing them to the atmosphere.  As a veteran use of glove boxes, which are common equipment in chemistry labs to handle samples away from air, I especially enjoyed the four glove boxes that were all linked together and had a little airless train to transport samples from one to another.  My BH was particularly enchanted that in among all of this advanced technology, there were still indications that some properties of scientists are universal.  Attached to a large gas cylinder feeding one complex system was a hand-lettered sign stating, “MY Helium!  Do not take!”  I could sympathize with the sentiment!

It was truly inspiring to look at what technologies are on the horizon.  My BH observed as well that every person we encountered seemed to be happy and to love his or her job.  I can definitely see how exciting it would be to come to that facility each day and work to make our energy future more secure, more economical, and more environmentally friendly.

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Rocky Mountain Research Station

Our second stop of our nerd tour was at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, which is the research arm of the US Forest Service.  I had met one of their scientists when she came out to DC, and she made the offer, “Come see us!”  I was intrigued by learning more about forestry research, so I sent her and email and told her to be careful what she wished for since I would like to come.  We were joined by the Fort Collins area Bennet regional director, so along with my Beloved Husband, we made a good audience.  My BH did get a crash course in forestry, but he’s a smart one, and I think he enjoyed the deluge of information.

We were on the brink of not going because northern Colorado got a May 1st snowstorm.  With all my knowledge of how dire the drought has been, I have promised not to complain about any inclement weather, but it was not entirely pleasant.  Besides, the locals did my complaining for me.  Just the day before, the weather had been in the 70’s, so the roads were warm and the snow didn’t stick.  Driving was very bright with all the white snow; I felt as though my pupils had contracted to pinpoints and were still taking in too much light, but we made it without any troubles.

A May snow storm

A May snow storm

Just like every Senate office has its own character, so too does every federal agency.  The Forest Service was designed to be decentralized since different procedures and practices must be optimized to different environments.  The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) covers territory from Montana to New Mexico as part of the inner mountain West, so they still have enormous scope.

Our first pair of scientists talked about water issues, especially as they relate to federal lands.  Across the country, 18% of the water supply starts as runoff from Forest Service land, and in Colorado, that proportion increases to 68%, so there is a strong link between water supply and the health of forest lands.  There was a recent study completed using a single consistent set of methods to look at all the major watersheds across the country to establish the level of water stress expected in the future, and not surprisingly, the already over-allocated Colorado River basin is looking rather dire.  There are follow-up studies being performed on regional watersheds, which will probably have a better chance of inspiring action since it will be easier to work with a smaller number of stakeholders.

As a side note, I was well aware that I was dealing with true scientists since they invariably used the word, data, correctly as a plural.  For example, “There weren’t enough good data.”  It made me smile since that’s one of my own hard-learned lessons.

Our next presenter came to us remotely from Missoula, where all the fire research is centered.  Since the forestry research for the Rockies is dispersed among multiple sites, the group frequently uses remote conferencing technology that includes the ability to share PowerPoint slides. The fire guy mainly discussed the 2002 Hayman fire that held the previous record for the largest fire in Colorado and burned between Denver and Colorado Springs.  Prior to 2012, the state averaged a major fire every other year, but last summer, there were six large fires, and there is a general sense that this is the new norm.  Colorado weather is highly variable, and fires tend to expand rapidly when the relative humidity drops below 10% and when the winds kick up above 30 mph.  Our expert also talked about the importance of fuel treatments and what kind of treatments are most important.  It’s important to keep trees and brush away from a house in the WUI, but the small fuels are also important.  The house of a man whose last act before evacuating was to cut his grass might be spared from a fire whereas a neighbor’s house burned down.

With all of that information so well established about the behaviors of fire and how to reduce individual risk, the question immediately arises why people don’t do more or even willfully don’t clear the brush around their houses.  The next scientist talked about the human element, programs to educate people about the risks of living in the WUI and what can be done about it.  For example, people who learn about fire risk in the WUI from the media don’t do much about it.  A much smaller number of people will learn of risks and treatments from their local fire departments, but those people are much more likely to take action.  We were also rather stunned that even after a fire has burned in the area, many people continue to ignore the risks.  She didn’t have time to talk about, “the really awesome project,” which left me wanting to go back just to hear more about that.

One of the most fascinating parts of her project was that before all the risk data were available, people actually paid more money for houses that had significant wildfire risk factors such as wood roofs, because these attractive features were not identified as risks.  After the risk data were available, people paid less money for these risky properties.  Her interpretation was, “People don’t pay more money for higher risk.  Teenagers don’t buy houses.”

We next went on a walking tour of the labs.  Our first guide was a plant geneticist who talked about the challenges of the White Pine Blister Rust that is a pathogen that wiped out the white pine population in the Northwest to the point that the Western White Pine is now an endangered species.  We talked a bit about the Mountain Pine Beetle, which has been causing extensive damage in Colorado as well, and I was familiar with some of those issues because of my work in the office.

Oddly, one of the strangest parts of this experience was that the scientist had swiped the bowl of fresh strawberries from our meeting room and brought them down to the lab for snacks.  In chemistry labs, we just don’t put our food next to our samples!

Strawberries and pine cones

Strawberries and pine cones

Our last stop was in the water quality lab, which had more than enough instruments to keep a chemist happy.  Some of the projects in that lab included looking at the water quality of forests and how they are affected by logging, insect damage, and wildfire.

Once again, it was fascinating to look at forests and water from multiple perspectives and see how research projects overlap.  I’m enormously grateful to everyone who took the time to talk to us and share even a tiny fragment of their knowledge.

The drive down to Boulder was snowy but smooth.  More nerdiness to come!

Much needed precipitation!

Much needed precipitation!

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US Geologic Survey (USGS) Colorado

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.

I loved that the benches for our PowerPoint presentation were simply ice core transport boxes

I loved that the benches for our PowerPoint presentation were simply ice core transport boxes

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.

Penguins keeping cool in the ice core lab

Penguins keeping cool in the ice core lab

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.

Mr. Freeze keeping watch over a Greenland ice core

Mr. Freeze keeping watch over a Greenland ice core

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.

Storage of the Waste-Divide core

Storage of the Waste-Divide core

ice core segments

ice core segments

The amazingly clear ice typical of Antarctica

The amazingly 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.

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