An Island of Opportunity

Natalie takes off during swim call, with a view of HTHH in the background. Credit: SEA
Natalie takes off during swim call, with a view of HTHH in the background. Credit: SEA

By Natalia Chiapperi & Carlin Schildge /HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA’APAI, KINGDOM OF TONGA/

As we begin to wrap up our time here at HTHH, the data collection slowed down and we found some free time to enjoy the beauty and seclusion of the island. The day started late, with an 8:40 wake-up call, the latest we’ve been able to sleep-in in several weeks. After a fun frittata frenzy (don’t you just love alliteration?) we signed up for shifts of anchor watch on the ship and free time on shore. Half of the students ventured to island in the morning, while the other half took to land in the afternoon. Our watch hung around on the ship for the morning. What was shaping up to be a relaxing morning of reading and card games was made much more exciting with a surprise swim call right before lunch. We climbed to the end of the bowsprit for the first time without our harnesses, and suddenly the way down looked like a much further fall than we initially realized. But with the encouragement of our shipmates, we mustered some courage and took the leap!

Cameron, Grace, and Natalie (left to right) at the rim of the Crater Lake. The Crater Lake and the South Shore of HTHH can be seen behind them. Credit: SEA
Cameron, Grace, and Natalie (left to right) at the rim of the Crater Lake. The Crater Lake and the South Shore of HTHH can be seen behind them. Credit: SEA

After lunch wrapped up, we started the daily shuffle of small boat runs to shore, to swap out students and crew who spent the morning on the island. Once on the rocky black shores, the two of us parted ways to chase our separate adventures. Natalie made the long haul across the north shore to the southwest corner with Grace and Cameron to begin a trek up to the crater rim. The path was an easy one to choose – simply go where the crevices are only 10 feet deep instead of 50, and you’re good to go. The mountain was deceptively small; the trek up wasn’t even the hardest part. The 15-minute climb was nothing compared to the 45-march out to the base of the crater. But it was all worth it once we saw the view from the top. We even saw a whale splashing around Mama Seamans! Oh, and we spotted Carlin journeying across the barren island towards the Crater Lake.

A bright patch of juvenile coral perches on a rock in the waters off Hunga Tonga. Credit: SEA
A bright patch of juvenile coral perches on a rock in the waters off Hunga Tonga. Credit: SEA

Carlin broke off with Eliza and Arielle, and we walked over to Crater Lake to investigate the legendary hot spots. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in locating them ourselves, but we had a nice time seeing how far we could sink into the sediment (I almost lost my shoe when, after sitting in sediment up to my thigh, my leg found the surface but my shoe did not). After some light whale watching on the south shore, we made our way back for a snorkel around the northern tip of Hunga Tonga. It was absolutely incredible, and I saw some of the healthiest and most diverse corals I will probably ever see. It was amazing to witness the rebirth of the reef and see how resilient an ecosystem can be when undisturbed by human impacts. Colorful reef fish (and the occasional reef shark) darted from rock to rock, where hundreds of precariously perched baby coral polyps grew out of the ashes of the volcanic eruption. We even saw some massive, old heads of coral, covered in ash, with smaller new polyps growing miraculously over them. It was amazingly hopeful to see the coral reef at the beginning of its life, and it left me with hope for the future of the budding diverse ecosystem.

We really appreciated the opportunity to explore HTHH on our own time today, while still carrying the geological and ecological knowledge we’ve come to acquire over the past few days of research. Data collection was still active across the island, as a team continued vegetation and bird surveys and another surveyed the corals using an ROV. And shout-out to our marine debris team as well, who worked tirelessly today to finish removing as much trash from the island as possible. We finished off this perfect day at HTHH with burgers, a beautiful sunset, and a movie night on deck. Once again feeling grateful for every opportunity this island has provided us. Cheers!

– Natalie Chiapperi, Ithaca College & Carlin Schildge, Colby College, proud members of A Watch!

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

 

Hands-on Research Gets Hot on HTHH, Tonga

Left – Sally and Grace compare surface mud with mud from deeper in the sediment column, while Eva, Katherine, and Olivia look on; Center – Cam holds hot mud up to the camera while Eva looks off camera; Right – Photo of hot mud with stake that is being used to investigate tidal influence within the crater lake. Blue in the thermal camera is not only produced by the cold, but also the underwater areas in the top of the image. Credit: NASA/ Dan Slayback
Thermal images of hot mud. Left – Sally and Grace compare surface mud with mud from deeper in the sediment column, while Eva, Katherine, and Olivia look on; Top right – Cam holds hot mud up to the camera while Eva looks off camera; Bottom right – Photo of hot mud with stake that is being used to investigate tidal influence within the crater lake. Blue in the thermal camera is not only produced by the cold, but also the underwater areas in the top of the image. Credit: NASA/ Dan Slayback

By Cameron Gallant and Katherine H. Webber /HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA’APAI, KINGDOM OF TONGA/

KATHERINE: Walking on deck, I welcomed our first sunny day at HTHH; however, upon reaching the island, I was greeted by hot black sand and an all-consuming heat that would last all day. Soon, as a part of the bird/vegetation team, Emily, Arielle, Cam, and I headed towards the southwest corner of the island, which boarders Hunga Ha’apai (which I think looks like a dragon lying down). Its red eye watched over us as we drew near.

CAMERON: The morning was hot, but peaceful. The sound of the waves mixed with the calls of boobies and frigate birds. The vivid green vegetation and reds in the rocks of Hunga Ha’apai set sharply against a bright blue sky and were in crazy contrast to the deep black rocks of HTHH.

KATHERINE: Our team observed a variety of birds, from frigate birds to red tailed tropical birds to a rare red-footed booby! While I was disappointed that we did not see any barn owls, we did discover a mysterious marsh bird, which we will soon identify!

Upon reaching the southwest corner, I was shocked to discover that there was a lot of marine debris scattered along the shore, in the sand and in the grass. Our single large trash bag was not enough to pick up all that we found (shoe soles, plastic bottles, Styrofoam, buoys, long plastic pipes, etc.), so we gathered the trash into piles for a group to collect tomorrow.

Plastic debris collection on HTHH, plastic debris is present on the foreground, with Arielle collecting trash in the background with the cone of HTHH in the distance. Credit: SEA
Plastic debris collection on HTHH. Plastic debris is present on the foreground, with Arielle collecting trash in the background with the cone of HTHH in the distance. Credit: SEA

CAMERON: How can there be shoes in a place where nobody has ever walked? Arielle alone, in about 15 minutes found 14 shoes (all flip flops or sandals), 13 bottles, and two buoys. It’s tough to feel impactful when I know next year more trash will be back. Perhaps HTHH, if it’s picked up each year, can be used as an indicator of the state of ocean bound trash in the area.

KATHERINE: The afternoon was for the crater lake. Watching the still green water emerge from the cover of brown canyons was striking in contrast to the crashing blue and purple surf of HTHH’s southern shore. I had paused between the two bodies of water when I noticed a small wave break not far from shore. I barely had time to alert my companions before a humpback whale breached right before my eyes! You could hear our screams of shock and delight from our ship, the Robert C. Seamans (I’m sure!), and we soon watched her calf breech multiple times, playing in the waves.

CAMERON: Grace thought she felt warm mud yesterday when we did transects to sonar map the bottom of the crater lake. Today, it took us a little while to find the area Grace had stumbled upon and there was some doubt as to if it even existed. Then, there was an excited cry, “I found it! It’s over here!’ Sure enough, as we stood half submerged in the crater lake, our feet sunk through the soft, and uncharacteristically warm mud!

Crater lake group in the water: (left to right) Dan, Adrianna, Eva, Kerry, Jennie, Cameron, Olivia, and Grace standing in the crater lake during hot mud investigation (not pictured: Katherine, Catherine, and Sally). Credit: SEA
Crater lake group in the water: (left to right) Dan, Adrianna, Eva, Kerry, Jennie, Cameron, Olivia, and Grace standing in the crater lake during hot mud investigation (not pictured: Katherine, Catherine, and Sally). Credit: SEA

KATHERINE: I stepped into the cool lake water, surprised as my foot, then ankle, then calf, was submerged until I was knee deep in gravel and mud! Due to a lack of a sediment temperature probe, our chief scientist decided that we would use what we have – our hands, feet, arms, and legs – to conduct our research.

So there we were, wandering knee deep in sediments (waist deep in water), sticking our limbs in and out of the earth, scooping up mud and gravel beneath the sun and clouds. When someone found a hot spot, everyone rushed over (all stumbling with movement hindered) to experience the spa-like sensation. Using a thermal camera, we measured the temperature of the sediment by taking a picture of mud after lifting it out of the water. In
the end, we discovered areas of underwater sediment in our study area (approximately one third of the lake shore) that were hotter than 100°F, with the hottest section at 127°F!

CAMERON:  “I love this mud. It’s not gritty.” I marveled. “Most mud has a certain grit too it.”

“It’s probably ash,” someone replied. Wow. It probably is.

The layering of sediment in the lake was fascinating! There were dark Oreo blacks combined with lighter brown layers to create a roughly inch-and-a-half thick rubbery crust (like firm tofu). This crust sat on top of softer mud mixed with volcanic rocks that provided very little resistance to our feet. Beneath everything was a firm gravely surface that supported our weight. Near one of our hotspots, we found that the sediment was layered in an alternating gravel, mud, gravel, mud fashion.

Throughout the afternoon, we moved along the lake edge and discovered the hot areas were not uniformly around the lake. We hope to feel out the rest of the lake tomorrow. We observed some of the mud has a slight sulfur aroma. The crater lake’s salinity and temperature are also similar to nearby sea water. We set up a temporary stake to monitor the water level to help determine if the lake is tidally influenced. Perhaps there is some
circulation between the lake and the ocean nearby.

KATHERINE: As incredible as the discoveries we are making on this island are, I think it’s important to note that there is nothing like experiencing nature’s wonders firsthand, whether in the splashes of whales or the stateliness of HTHH. So, I encourage all of you to go out and experience your local nature. I hope that you will gain the same appreciation for your natural surroundings as I have for HTHH.

CAMERON: Walking back I just was smiling, trying to wrap my head around the outlandishness of the situation. We spent the afternoon walking around getting muddy in a crater lake and just discovered something nobody in the world knew.

– Katherine H. Webber, B Watch, Best Watch!, The University of Virginia

– Cameron Gallant, A Watch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

“Another Planet:” Exploring Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai

Collecting a side-scan sonar transect of the crater lake. The Lowrance is in the foreground, with Cam and Grace towing it in another inflatable raft. The crater wall is also in the background. Credit: SEA
Collecting a side-scan sonar transect of the crater lake. The Lowrance is in the foreground, with Cam and Grace towing it in another inflatable raft. The crater wall is also in the background. Credit: SEA

By Grace Callahan /HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA’APAI, KINGDOM OF TONGA/

Hello from the newest land mass on earth! I’m Grace, and today was my first day on Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai. (I spent yesterday on the ship, helping to ensure that our anchor wouldn’t slip and allow us to be blown out to sea.) After breakfast and a community meeting on the quarterdeck, I boarded our small rescue boat and was whisked ashore. The sky was blanketed with clouds that occasionally pelted us with rain, a fact which under normal circumstances would have been disappointing, but the weather made the pitch black sand of the beach more intense and the volcano itself, pitted with deep ravines, all the more striking. As I walked across this otherworldly landscape, it was easy to convince myself that I had stumbled onto another planet. That is until a barn owl swooped past me, shattering this illusion. (We believe these owls are eating the rats we have observed on the island, and there is still so much more to discover about the animals here!)

My first task of the day was to hike to the crater lake on the other side of the tuff cone in order to conduct a plankton net tow and to complete the last of the side-scan sonar transects that will allow us to map the contours of the lake basin. We inflated our two rafts, and paddled across the mint green lake, dragging a very fine mesh net behind us. This gave us a concentrated sample of any organisms larger than 60 microns in the lake. Our water samples from yesterday show that the lake is more acidic than the ocean around it, so it will be fascinating to see what organisms have colonized these waters. We have looked at our net tow sample using our ship microscopes, and so far have identified spindly diatoms and barnacle nauplii (larvae)!

Next up, we fixed a sonar device and GPS to one of the inflatable rafts, and towed that across the lake several times. These transects will hopefully allow us to map the bathymetry of the lake itself! In the process of handling and paddling the rafts, I managed to submerge myself up to my chest several times, and eventually gave up on being completely dry ever again. After all this walking, paddling, and hauling of equipment we were all quite ready to head back to the beach and meet the other research teams for lunch.

The cliffs and surf on the south shore of HTHH. Credit: SEA
The cliffs and surf on the south shore of HTHH. Credit: SEA

After lunch, I joined the geosurvey team on a hunt for geothermal hotspots in the ravines that scar the sides of the volcano. Dan Slayback, who has joined us from NASA for this mission, brought along his heat-sensing thermal imaging camera for this purpose. Though we did not succeed today in finding any hotspots, we had fun exploring the ravines and collecting images of interesting rocks for our geologic catalog. On our way back to our home base, we went around the south shore of the island and marveled at the steep, jet black cliffs above us and the raging surf below. We also saw several baby whales happily showing their tails in the waters just off the coast!

As the rescue boat ferried people back to the Seamans in small groups, I decided to go for a swim. Floating in the water with the magnificent volcano looming in front of me, I thought about coming back tomorrow. Hopefully I will hike to the very top of the crater in order to collect samples that will provide vital clues about the soil microbiome of this brand new island. I also want to pick up more of the plastic trash that litters the island, giving back to this place that has already taught us so much. But for now it’s back to the ship, dry clothes, dinner, and another round of planning before bed. Thank you Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai for your unearthly beauty and for helping us better understand the workings of our Earth and other planets beyond it. I can’t wait to return.

– Grace Callahan, Wellesley College

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

Early Reports from HTHH, Tonga

Students with the Sea Education Association's SSV Robert C. Seamans after landing on beach of HTHH. Credit: SEA
Students with the Sea Education Association’s SSV Robert C. Seamans after landing on beach of HTHH. Credit: SEA

by Frank Wenninger and Michael Tirone /HUNGA TONGA-HUNGA HA’APAI, KINGDOM OF TONGA/

As we labored down into the zodiac with our gear and rations, the ocean splashed violently around us. Those with hats cowered under the power of the southeasterly winds, and those in the front surrendered to the incessant spraying of the ocean. The 60 HP Yamaha engine roared to life and propelled us to the black sand beachhead on the northeast part of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. On the approach, our coxswain barked disembarking orders and doubled down on the throttle for the landing. The bow of the boat was into the black volcanic sand by the hands of the white foam waves. Following orders, we rolled over our respective sides, plunged into warm Pacific waters, and maintained our hold on the rope that had kept us safe on the journey over. As waves, wind and rain battered us from all sides, we raced to clear the boat of the shoreline. We were eagerly greeted by fellow pioneers who off loaded our gear, and took us to the rendezvous point. Water, sunscreen, and snack; we were here.

As I attempted to free my feet from the soft volcanic sand, my perspective took shape. The black volcanic sand gnawed at my feet as I crawled up the dune where I was met again with the unrelenting southeasterly wind. To my left Hunga Tonga, a 150m high, former island blanketed with vegetation, towered over. On my right, Hunga Ha’apai, also a former island stood in the distance thinly populated with green. Finally, to the center stood the body that bridged the two, a 120m gray volcanic crater. Frigate birds, brown boobies, sooty terns, and thin gray clouds hung over head; tall grasses, trees, coconuts, ferns, hanging vines blow in the wind, and (reported) rats and insects scurry through the brush. Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is young, and nature is quickly adapting and exploiting this union.

ank Wenninger paying Respect to Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai, small boats and SSV Robert C. Seamans in the background
Frank Wenninger paying Respect to Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, small boats and SSV Robert C. Seamans in the background. Credit: SEA

It still is surreal to be on Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai as the island is only four years old and fewer than 40 people have set their feet on this volcanic island. As some of us have talked to some Tongans while we were in Vava’u, thankfully there weren’t any bad omens or disrespect to their culture for us visiting the island and collecting data unlike other Polynesian islands such as Hawai’i. It is a bad luck to take rocks from the islands of Hawai’i as bad things happen to those that take rocks out of the island. Some people have mailed the rocks back to island in hope to get rid of the bad luck. From where I am from, Guam, it is important to ask for permission from the ancestors to enter certain areas or even to pee in the jungle. Although the people in Vava’u told us there is nothing to worry about, I wanted to pay respect to the island as soon as we got on the shore.

As a Pacific islander, respect is the most important virtue when it comes to every aspect of life. After I did my little prayer on the shore, all the crew got together to pay respect to the island. Soon we were off to complete our mission to help gather data in collaboration with our partners at NASA and with permission granted from the Kingdom of Tonga.

– Frank Wenninger, B Watch, George Washington University

Dan Slayback (right) and Pen Vailea (left) placing down drone/satellite target.
Pen Vailea (left) and Dan Slayback (right) placing down drone/satellite target. Credit: SEA

There is humanity among this beauty. I was fortunate to work with a team that included Dan Slayback, the NASA scientist who expertly orchestrated S-288’s research and Pen Vailea, our Tongan observer who guided and allowed us to do research on the island. Throughout my first day on the island Pen and Dan spearheaded multiple initiatives. First, we deployed a drone to systematically take photographs of the connecting portion of the island, or crater lake part. The drone flew at 300m in high winds and rain. It completed its mission per Dan. We also installed Tonga Geological Service plaques and satellite targets throughout the island to measure erosion. This group, the drone/installation group, summited and circumnavigated the crater lake, and I painfully ran around the rim looking for a different descent route. Other groups collected human debris throughout the island and others mapped the island’s crater lake. It was a productive first day for exploration, education, and stewardship. I hope we continue to have the opportunity to explore and give back to the island. Onto another day at sea, and on Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai.

– Michael Tirone, C Watch, Bowdoin College

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

Sailing to Mars via Earth’s Newest Landmass

Intrepid students and SEA assistant scientists deploy the pack rafts and side-scan sonar in the crater lake at HTHH.
Intrepid students and SEA assistant scientists deploy the pack rafts and side-scan sonar in the crater lake at HTHH. Credit: SEA

by Kerry Whittaker, Chief Scientist aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans / KINGDOM OF TONGA /

On September 27th the SSV Robert C. Seamans departed Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa, bound for Earth’s newest landmass, located in the Kingdom of Tonga. The ship is a Sea Education Association student sailing and oceanographic vessel with 40 souls on board: student and professional crew, faculty, a visiting scientist from NASA, and an observer from the Tongan Ministry of the Environment. The ship’s destination: a new landmass formed in 2015 in an explosive volcanic eruption. The eruption deposited a pile of ash, pumice, and lava ‘bombs,’ building up a new landmass over the course of a month connecting the two small, uninhabited islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai.  Perhaps the King of Tonga is scheming up a name for this new landmass, but for now, we’ll refer to it as HTHH.

Sea Education Association has been sailing to remote ocean regions, conducting oceanographic research, and involving students in sail training and scientific exploration for over 40 years.  Our two 134-foot sailing tall-ships are each fully equipped with an oceanographic research laboratory and field sampling technology geared towards studying the chemistry, geology, physics, and biology of the ocean from the surface to deep ocean habitats.  Both ships are designated Sailing School Vessels (SSV), which means that students sail as crew, not as passengers.  The SSV Corwth Cramer operates in the Atlantic Ocean, and the SSV Robert C. Seamans in the Pacific.

Since the formation of HTHH in 2015, NASA has been keenly interested in this landmass as a rare opportunity to examine pathways of land formation and erosion in the time of 21st century remote sensing and scientific technology. HTHH is the first island formed on Earth since the availability of sub-meter resolution satellites including imaging radar and geodetic lidar altimetry. The island has persisted longer than expected, sparking
questions of the erosion dynamics behind its longevity and mechanical stability. NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is most interested in HTHH, as it offers a proxy for understanding important geologic dynamics on the red planet associated with water-based erosion.  One might even consider the island of HTHH “Mars on Earth.”

Map showing the western Pacific with Australia and the Kingdom of Tonga.
Map showing the western Pacific with Australia to the left and the Kingdom of Tonga highlighted in red.

We’ve now arrived here at HTHH, aboard the Robert C. Seamans, which is nimble enough to get close to the island and involve students in this work in collaboration with the Kingdom of Tonga and with our partners at NASA.

As Chief Scientist for the SSV Robert C. Seamans throughout this mission, I have the distinct pleasure of wearing many hats (educator, scientist, shipmate, and my salty blue baseball hat), and facilitating the scientific and educational elements of this work.  As we sailed south from Vava’u, the island emerged from the horizon, otherworldly, wild, and pristine. For months and months, we had planned for this moment. Now, our much-discussed mission fully materialized: a dark grey primordial-looking volcano striped with canyons, dark black saddles leading to green-tufted islands to the East and the West.

We have twenty-six eager college students as integral parts of our scientific mission: to better understand processes of land formation on Earth, so that we might understand it on other planets (e.g. Mars). We’ll conduct our research in partnership with NASA and with the Kingdom of Tonga. As an educator, this experience is a dream.  I’m able to guide students through the process of discovery-to invite them to be scientists, to be stewards of this place, and communicators of our work. To show them the messy, complicated, joyous process of fieldwork. These students are immersed in the pure logistics of it all – of getting people from boat to island (don’t forget the sunblock, the radios, and make sure the datasheets are waterproof!). The need to McGuyver.  The need to open our eyes and question everything we see. I’m not lecturing in front of an undergraduate chemistry bench or over a microscope mimicking the scientific process.  Instead, I’m trudging through tiny volcanic black pebbles through the wind and rain with students trailing behind, wearing bright yellow foulie jackets and rain boots. I can’t help but feel a bit like Miss Frizzle.

We’re headed to the island’s crater lake to map its depth and shape for the first time using pack rafts and a portable sonar device. We’ve wound up and through the canyons lining the volcano’s steep walls, loose volcanic ash towering 30-50 feet above us, documenting and hypothesizing about the rocks and a suspicious white ooze coming from a distinct layer between ash and chunks of basalt.  We’re asking questions, using the human tools of our eyes and senses. We’re collecting data that might help to answer those questions with equipment we’ve personally lugged through force 6 winds in five or so small boat runs back and forth from island to ship throughout the morning. The equipment includes an ROV, two drones, highly sensitive GPS devices, datasheets, trash bags, sonar equipment and pack rafts, all to be deployed by student teams throughout the day, all to be trudged through the tiny black pebbles to the crater lake, the crater rim, the raucous wind-exposed south side beach, and the island’s saddles.  Tomorrow, we’ll test the newest rumor yet (although currently unsubstantiated) – Grace stuck her feet deep in the silt at the crater lake, and it was WARM down there. We’re picking up marine debris (because yes, of course, despite being the newest landmass on Earth, HTHH is covered with plastic trash).

The greatest delight for me, beyond the science and the adventure, is inviting students to engage as integral members in this scientific (and very human) process of discovery.  I am so excited to share this experience on HTHH with this eager group of SEA students.  I’m thrilled to be collaborating with NASA, our visiting scientist Dan Slayback, and our Tongan observer and partners in the Tongan Ministry of the Environment. I’m so fortunate to be working alongside an amazing team of professional crew (assistant scientists, engineers, steward, and mates) sailing aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, without whom this work would not be possible.  I’m also endlessly grateful to my co-faculty, Captain and Chief Anthropologist, aboard as masters of our educational and sailing program.  And we’re excited to share our experience with you! Please follow along for the next few days as we accomplish this most exciting mission here at HTHH, Mars on Earth.

On this expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga, NASA is partnering with the Tongan Ministry of the Environment and the Sea Education Association, an internationally recognized leader in field-based environmental education at sea. This entry is cross-posted from SEA’s blog with permission.

NASA Rock Stars

Video Credits: NASA/Rafael Luis Mendez Peña

by Emily Schaller / ANGELES CITY, PAMPANGA, PHILIPPINES /

NASA airborne scientists, engineers and pilots have exciting jobs studying and exploring Earth, but one thing that is not typically part of the job description is getting treated like a famous celebrity.  However, for the past three weeks, signing autographs and taking selfies with hundreds of people has been the new norm for members of the NASA CAMP2Ex team when visiting schools here in the Philippines.

For the past four weeks, our NASA team of scientists, engineers, and pilots have been conducting science flights studying clouds and pollution from the Philippines as part of the Cloud, Aerosol and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex), based at Clark Airport in Central Luzon.

We are fortunate that Philippine Science High School Central Luzon campus (PSHS-CLC) is less than a mile away from where our aircraft are currently based at Clark Airport. Campus Director Theresa Diaz has welcomed our NASA team seven times into her school over the past three weeks.  Students and teachers from across the Philippines have also traveled to PSHS-CLC to see our NASA presentations and interact directly with our scientists, engineers and pilots.

NASA’s CAMP2Ex team (center), poses with 8th grade students and teachers at the Philippine Science High School Central Luzon Campus. Students and teachers learned about NASA Earth Science and the goals of the CAMP2Ex mission in the Philippines. Credits: PSHS-CLC/Neil Patiag and Francesca Manalang

In addition to presenting at PSHS-CLC, we have also traveled to present at the Philippine Science High School Main Campus in Quezon City, the Quezon City Experience Museum, Paranaque Science High School in Metro Manila and Ateneo de Davao University in Mindanao.

The way our team has been received at schools across the Philippines demonstrates the incredible Filipino hospitality as well as NASA’s global reach. For example, upon arrival to the Paranaque Science High School in metro Manila, our team received a welcome from the school marching band, a program of dancing and singing, as well as paper medals placed around our necks. After our presentation, we dined with the principal and other teachers on a delicious meal and all received certificates of appreciation as well as more food and gifts to take home with us. At most presentations, students also asked for our autographs and to pose with us for selfies. We are not used to such Rock Star treatment!

In coordinating outreach to local schools, we partnered with the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program. GLOBE, sponsored by NASA and supported by NOAA, NSF, and the Department of State, is a worldwide network of schools where students make observations of their environment and upload those observations to an online database.  Citizen scientists can also participate via the free GLOBE Observer app. This long-term, world-wide data is publicly available and can be accessed by students and teachers at other GLOBE schools. It is also used by NASA scientists and others for Earth science research, including ground-truthing of satellite data. The GLOBE Program began in 1995; the Philippines joined in 1999 and has a very active program.  After many of our presentations, GLOBE Philippines Country Coordinator Rod Allan De Lara and Assistant Coordinator Joan Callope gave presentations about GLOBE and led students in executing GLOBE observation protocols relevant to our airborne science program mission here in the Philippines.

Eighth graders at Philippine Science High School Central Luzon Campus perform GLOBE cloud (right) and mosquito (left) protocols after a lecture from the NASA CAMP2Ex team on Sept. 9, 2019. Credits: NASA/Emily Schaller

In total, we gave twelve presentations that reached over 1500 students in 39 different schools. (Many students traveled from great distances across the Philippines to see our presentations.) During many school visits, we also connected in real-time to our scientists flying aboard our aircraft via a live chatting application. Students were able to ask questions directly to people flying aboard our airplanes using the NASA Mission Tools Suite for Education (MTSE) website.

Finally, we also brought students and teachers into our hangar at Clark Airport three times to see our aircraft close-up and to interact directly with our scientists, engineers and pilots. We hope our presentations, chats and tours have inspired the next generation of Filipinos to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Students and teachers from Batasan Hills High School and Bagong Silangan High School pose by the NASA P-3B aircraft after a tour of CAMP2Ex headquarters at Clark International Airport, Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines on Sept. 14, 2019. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez
NASA Pilot Brian Bernth talks to Filipino students and teachers next to the NASA P-3B aircraft at Clark International Airport, Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Though our time in the Philippines is coming to a close shortly, we will never forget the students and teachers we met and the warm Filipino welcome we received everywhere we visited. Salamat (thank you) to all of the Filipino teachers and students who welcomed our NASA team so warmly.

Even When Storm Clouds Gather, Our Next Generation of Scientists Shines Bright

Emilio Gozo from the Manila Observatory provides a weather forecast for an upcoming CAMP2Ex flight. Credits: NASA/Samson Reiny

by Samson Reiny / ANGELES CITY, PAMPANGA, PHILIPPINES /

There’s a lot to get excited about on an airborne science campaign like the Cloud, Aerosol, and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex). From watching data stream in from instruments observing fire smoke that had never been sampled in detail, to stunning imagery of the skies captured during flight, there are more highs to be had than can be counted.

Students with the Manila Observatory work on weather forecasts to guide flight plans for NASA’s P-3B and the Learjet. Here is the flight plan for Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, when the P-3B captured smoke in the Sulu Sea that had drifted north from peat fires in Borneo.

But, for me, the pinnacle of the campaign is the people. CAMP2Ex involves collaborators from government agencies and universities across the United States, the Philippines, Japan, and Europe all working together to better understand fundamental processes between clouds and aerosols that drive climate and weather across the globe. And, perhaps most reassuringly for our collective future, the next generation of scientists is also very actively involved in both the planning and execution of the campaign.

Students and early-career collaborators from the Manila Observatory, a key partner in CAMP2Ex, share what they’ve been up to and where they may go from here.

Shane Visaga. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez


Shane Visaga

How are you involved in CAMP2Ex? What have you learned from this experience so far?

We’re working the forecasts for this airborne campaign, which is a first for us.

As a student from the climate systems group, we’ve mainly worked with climate models. Modeling mostly confines us to working on our desks. Here at CAMP2Ex, our forecasting job goes beyond the books. It’s putting what we study to task.

How does your area of academic interest intersect with the objectives of the campaign?

I’m working on my master’s in atmospheric science at Ateneo [de Manila University], and for my thesis with the Manila Observatory I’m looking at the effects that urban cities have on the vertical mixing of aerosols, heat, and moisture over what we call the boundary layer. Manila used to be a mix of rural and urban areas, but now that we’ve altered that landscape, I’m looking into how those changes have affected our local weather.

A key area of interest for me in particular is urban pollution. There’s an instrument called a lidar. We have one ground lidar at the Manila Observatory and another on the NASA P-3B. So what I’m trying to get from this campaign are the comparisons of the measurements, specifically over Manila, since the plane can give you spatial variability as it passes other surfaces such as coastal or rural areas. I’m hoping to see the difference of that vertical mixing, not just the air flow but also the heat and moisture, which drives the atmospheric instability and leads to thunderstorms.

What is the most valuable part of this experience so far?

We are very thankful to our mentors Dr. Gemma Narisma, Dr. James Simpas, and Dr. Obie Cambaliza for bringing us to CAMP2Ex and trusting us that we can handle this kind of high-pressure environment. Secondly, I’m thankful for the openness of the scientists, specifically Bob Holz and Ralph Kuehn from University of Wisconsin for letting me do the initial analysis for the convective boundary layer height for the HSRL [High Spectral Resolution Lidar]. I’m also thankful to Jeff [Reid] for how he’s pushed us to be assertive and to be a part of the flight planning and mission management.

What are your goals following the campaign?

I’m really hoping to get a science visit to one of the institutions and really see their work environment and hopefully bring that experience back to the Manila Observatory, because seeing how fast they work after every flight and how they go about their initial analysis, that’s something we can bring back to the Philippines and the research that we do.

 

Kevin Henson. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Kevin Henson

How are you involved in CAMP2Ex? What have you learned from this experience so far?

At the Manila Observatory, we don’t do a lot of weather forecasting. This is the first time that we’re heavily involved in it, especially for an airborne campaign. So that’s primarily my role: being a part of the forecasting group and planning where the flights will go and locating where the best areas to do the science are.

On the side, I’m also doing research on the Manila plume, which is essentially the pollution coming from Manila. I’m trying to find out where it’s being transported, especially in relation to the local terrain and meteorology.

How does your area of academic interest intersect with the objectives of the campaign?

My main research area for CAMP2Ex is modeling pollution transport, both from local sources, mainly metro Manila, and what’s coming into the Philippines, as we saw a few days ago with the smoke from Indonesia. So I’ve mostly been modeling these things, but to see it actually firsthand through airplane observations has been eye-opening.

What is the most valuable part of this experience so far?

This experience is a dream come true for me. I’ve always been a NASA fan since I was younger, and I have always been inspired to do science because of all the things I’ve seen NASA do and accomplish. Coming into this campaign,  I’ve only just read the papers of the different scientists, but now I’m having actual face-to-face conversations with them. Understanding their thought processes has been very enlightening. I get to see how they develop their science questions and hypotheses and how they analyze data. That’s really one of the biggest takeaways for me—learning from these seasoned scientists.

What are your goals following the campaign?

In the long term, I’m interested in looking at aerosol and cloud interactions. But before you can even go there you really have to know where the pollution is going, which means making sure your models are getting the transport right. That’s the baseline that you work with before you proceed with any further investigation, and that’s part of what we’re doing here at CAMP2Ex.

 

Angela Magnaye. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Angela Magnaye

How are you involved in CAMP2Ex? What have you learned from this experience so far?

My role is forecasting, and I’ve also been doing some model validations, which is one of my interests because I do climate modeling at the Manila Observatory-Regional Climate Systems Laboratory. I’m also interested in land-sea temperature contrast as part of my research for CAMP2Ex.

This is a very different experience for me. The only time I have done anything like this was in 2017 for the pre-PISTON [Propagation of Intra-Seasonal Tropical Oscillations] campaign, which was not an airborne campaign but a research vessel campaign in the northwest Luzon coast.

How does your area of academic interest intersect with the objectives of the campaign?

I’ve been studying a lot of air-sea interactions with climate models for my master’s degree in atmospheric science in the Ateneo, and I’m here to help with the validation of those models. With the data acquired from the Sally Ride and the NASA P-3, we’ll have more information on how the air and sea interact and affect convection, cloud formation, and precipitation, and that’s very important for the models, especially when we do long-term runs. That can help us a lot.

What is the most valuable part of this experience so far?

In the forecasting team, we are particularly grateful for Ed Fukada, lead forecaster of this campaign because of his decades of expertise in weather and typhoon forecasting. Also, for me, it’s the collaboration with international scientists. We don’t get this chance very often, and it’s very valuable for the students to be interacting with experts in the field. We get to consult with them to gain more insights into our own work, and at the same time, we also teach them more about our region, because the meteorology in the tropics is very different. So maybe our insights might help them with their analysis as well.

What are your goals following the campaign?

I want to pursue Ph.D. studies abroad and then come back to the Philippines. It’s important to get insights and expertise from scientists around the world and then hopefully bring that back here so that we can have more capacity building here I the Philippines and have more scientists in the Philippines as well.

 

Emilio Gozo. Credits: NASA/Monica Vazquez Gonzalez

Emilio Gozo

How are you involved in CAMP2Ex? What have you learned from this experience so far?

Right now, I’m part of the microphysics team of the Manila Observatory, and we’re trying to investigate why rainfall in the models is usually overestimated. Somehow, cloud particles in the tropics, especially in the Philippines, are different from those in the mid-latitudes. A hypothesis for the difference is the pollution coming from China and Borneo. Pollution acts as seeds for clouds and it affects rainfall amounts. So we’re trying to see from this mission how the structure and content of clouds are different in this region.

How does your area of academic interest intersect with the objectives of the campaign?

I just finished my master’s degree in atmospheric science. My research now is centered on the effect that changes in urban land cover have on the amount of rainfall. For this campaign it’s a little different, as we’re looking at how cloud structures change, so now we’re incorporating pollution as it relates to the aerosol content in clouds.

What is the most valuable part of this experience so far?

So far, everything is pretty new to me, from the on-the-spot weather forecasting to talking in front of lots of scientists. I’m used to research meetings with just a few people. Now you’re trying to convince a lot of scientists where to fly and when or whether or not we should fly at all on a given day. Also, all of the scientists are very open and easy to talk to if you have questions. It’s a productive environment for research.

What are your goals following the campaign?

From this campaign, there will be lots of data to look at, so I’ll probably analyze the data and write science papers. It’s very inspiring to see all the scientists here working together, so now I’m motivated.

A New Flame: Airborne Campaign the First to Sample Borneo Fire Smoke in Detail

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured large plumes of smoke from peat fires burning across the island of Borneo from Sept. 9 to Sept. 15, 2019. Credits: NASA

by Samson Reiny / ANGELES CITY, PAMPANGA, PHILIPPINES /

Until now, no one had captured smoke plumes from a Borneo fire in all their chemical, radiative, and physical glory…

My work partner in crime, Katy Mersmann, and I left Washington, D.C., Saturday morning and arrived at our hotel near Clark Air Base in Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines, shortly before midnight on Sunday. On Monday morning we dragged our feet into mission operations for the Cloud, Aerosol, and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex),and not a minute later a giant monitor screen revealed a satellite-based map of Borneo peppered with red dots—the third largest island in the world was ablaze with hundreds of fires.

NASA’s P-3B science aircraft had already been having a field day, zooming in, over, and around those smoke plumes as they drifted north into the Sulu Sea. The plane is tracking the resulting smoke particles and their atmospheric interactions as part of CAMP2Ex’s nearly two-month-long investigation on the impact that smoke from fires and pollution have on clouds, a key factor in improving weather and climate forecasts.

From a screenshot on NASA’s Worldview, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite displays a rash of peat fires burning across the island of Borneo, Indonesia, and Malaysia on Sept. 15, 2019. Credits: NASA

Until now, no one had captured smoke plumes from a Borneo fire in all their chemical, radiative, and physical glory—said U.S. Naval Research Laboratory meteorologist and CAMP2Ex mission scientist Jeffrey Reid. “This is an historic day, and it’s happening in the middle of the largest fire event for the region in four years,” he said, noting that while agricultural fires in the region are common this time of year, the recent dry spell has made the peat soil perfect kindling for a prolonged burn. “Because the water table has dropped, these fires are going to continue to burn until the island sees some significant rainfall.”

Images taken from the forward (top) and nadir cameras aboard NASA’s P-3B aircraft during the Sept. 16 flight reveal a pea soup-thick layer of smoke in the atmosphere in the Sulu Sea north of Borneo. Credits: NASA

“There was tons of smoke east of Palawan [a Philippine island west of the Sulu Sea]—there was no visibility in the soup,” said Luke Ziemba, flight scientist for this flight and CAMP2Ex composition focus area lead from NASA’s Langley Research Center, who debriefed the science team following some eight hours in the air and more than 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) of smoke tracking logged. “It was impossible to see the clouds.” But when better visibility did avail itself, the P3-B punched through as many clouds as possible—punch then descend, punch then descend—he recounted. As with any science flight that flirts with a wide range of altitudes—think 2,000 to 20,000 feet (600 to 6000 meters)—and commits to a number of maneuvers, from box spirals to pitches, it can be quite a stomach-churning experience.

NASA’s P-3B science aircraft touches down at Clark Air Base in Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines, after a successful flight on Sept. 15, 2019. Credits: NASA/Katy Mersmann

“And tomorrow we hit it again after it has been transported into the Western Pacific,” Reid said with a smile. The NASA P-3B would rendezvous with the Scripps research vessel Sally Ride, which is on its own campaign to study air-sea interactions to better understand how weather develops on continental and even intercontinental scales through the Office of Naval Research Propagation of InterSeasonal Tropical OscillatioNs (PISTON) project. A Stratton Park Engineering Company (SPEC) Inc. Learjet would also be in tow, validating the P3-B’s data while also doing its own in situ measurements in clouds.

The instruments involved are among the crème de la crème of the science world. Among the NASA P-3B’s instruments is the High Spectral Resolution Lidar, or HSRL2, which is situated in the aircraft’s belly and is able to observe aerosols up and down the atmospheric column and gather information on their distribution, abundance, type, and size. During the flight, NASA Langley research physical scientist and HSRL2 co-investigator Sharon Burton had been tracking the instrument’s measurements on her laptop. Pointing to graph readouts on screen, she noted that much of the smoke from the fire is drifting in the boundary layer, low in the atmosphere, where monsoon and other clouds form. “Aerosols can seed clouds and produce water droplets that come down as rain, but they can also prevent rain from falling,” she said. “It’s extremely complex, but that’s why we’re here—to get a better handle on the quantitative processes that make these events happen.”

After the afternoon flight debrief, a steady shower descended on Clark Air Base, cooling the sticky, heavy air synonymous with the Philippines rainy season. Everyone stares out the window, mesmerized, smiling, and grabbing umbrellas. It’s all science, and yet it’s still very magical.

An Atmospheric Science Workout

by Brenna Biggs / SKIES OVER CALIFORNIA /

The world is full of diet and exercise plans. Eat less carbs, eat more carbs, practice yoga, go for a run.

In my opinion, the most consistent way to burn calories is by working for the Whole Air Sampling (WAS) group in the Rowland-Blake lab. Fortunately, as an atmospheric chemist and PhD candidate, I get to work for (and work out with) them full time.

I had the incredible opportunity to represent WAS as a Science Mentor for NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) this summer.

I mentored seven undergraduate students from universities all around the United States. Together, we developed and executed seven different projects studying air quality in California. Most people are familiar with gases like nitrogen and oxygen, which do make up a large percentage of what we breathe. However, WAS is more focused on the “trace gases”—compounds like methane or carbon dioxide that still play important roles in climate and human health. All SARP projects were based on current field work as well as previous data.

The WAS group collects air samples inside stainless steel, 2-liter canisters. The canisters are emptied before sampling, so they suck in air upon opening. We can collect these samples on the ground, in mobile labs, or aboard NASA’s aircraft to figure out what gases make up the air. For SARP, we hooked up twenty-four of these canisters together to form what we call a “snake,” aptly named because of the snaked appearance of the tubing. NASA’s DC-8 airplane can carry up to seven snakes at a time. These are hooked up to a pump, which pulls in air from outside the plane. Samples are collected at various altitudes over varying topography from within the hot airplane. The combination of low altitude and heat can lead to a very bumpy ride, which results in many students and mentors getting motion sickness and vomiting above scenic locations around California. It sounds gross, but puking for science is a noble cause.

A sweaty, nauseous version of myself preparing to collect a WAS sample aboard the NASA DC-8 for the SARP 2019 mission. Canisters in four of the seven onboard snakes can be seen. Credits: Megan Schill

You are probably eager to learn what snakes on a plane have to do with staying in shape. After SARP flights are complete, the students detach the filled snakes and swap them out with fresh ones. The snakes weigh a minimum 70 pounds each! Each one must be delicately finessed out of the WAS rack, carried though the long aisle of the plane amidst bustling scientists, and transported down the stairs, where they are packaged into boxes. From there, they are loaded onto a truck for their journey back to the University of California, Irvine. This all requires a lot of upper body strength.

WAS students Anna Winter, Nicolas Farley, and Bronte Dalton get ready to swap out snakes aboard the NASA DC-8. Credits: Megan Schill

Once the snakes arrive in Irvine, SARP students analyze the canisters alongside lab technicians to determine the identity and concentration of nearly 100 gases. WAS students in SARP have the unique opportunity to not only collect samples relevant to their research projects but also enjoy some hands-on lab experience! Don Blake, our fearless leader and faculty mentor, is the Rowland-Blake group’s principal investigator. He has been an integral part of SARP since its inauguration in 2009.

Don Blake teaches WAS SARP student Katrina Rokosz how to properly collect a whole air sample: “Away from your body and into the wind,” he says. Credits: Brenna Biggs

This summer, the WAS SARP students had projects that varied regionally and over time. As a group, my students were able to incorporate every year of the SARP dataset; that’s over a decade of data! Many of my students chose to focus on California’s Central Valley, which has a reputation for poor air quality due to a combination of topography oil drilling and agricultural activity.

Photos taken during hot and bumpy flights around California during July 2019 to determine air composition around the Central Valley and the Pacific coast. Credits: Brenna Biggs
Photos taken during hot and bumpy flights around California during July 2019 to determine air composition around the Central Valley and the Pacific coast. Credits: Brenna Biggs

Using archived WAS data from previous SARPs, Bronte Dalton, a student from Columbia University, analyzed hydrocarbons, such as methane and ethane, to discover potentially unreported oil spills. She found oil throughout sparsely populated areas in the San Joaquin Valley. Katrina Rokosz, a student from University of Vermont, found elevated levels of marine gases wreaking havoc within the Valley, year after year. She showed not only that these gases were likely coming from the ocean, but also how they could affect air quality for people living in the region.

In addition to past data, my students also used data collected in 2019. One exciting opportunity arose after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake near Ridgecrest, California. Melissa Taha,  a student from California State University, San Bernardino, focused on measuring gases that resulted from the earthquake. We were able to adjust the SARP flight plans to include waypoints near Death Valley, where aftershocks continued to occur. At low altitude near the faults, WAS and other instruments measured several gases. Measurements of elevated levels of these gases could be used to better understand earthquakes in the future

Samuel Dobson, a student from Henderson State University, determined how elevated ethanol emissions from wineries affect disadvantaged communities in California. During the SARP flights this year, we targeted wineries within the Central Valley to determine the spread of these emissions. I also drove the students to these wineries to collect air samples. We visited boutique wineries near the airplane hangar in Palmdale. We even traveled as far as Fresno, California, to sample at a very large, industrial winery. (It looked more like an oil refinery!)

This summer was challenging, rigorous, and highly worth it. My students successfully selected difficult research questions and worked hard to find answers. They pushed the limits of their own understanding, and I could not be prouder of them.

From left to right: Honorary WAS group members Rafe Day, Ryan McMichael, Samuel Dobson, Nicolas Farley, Bronte Dalton, myself (Brenna Biggs), Melissa Taha, Anna Winter, Katrina Rokosz, and Don Blake. Just minutes before, my students shared their findings to SARP and NASA personnel. Don took us out for all-you-can-eat at Acapulco restaurant afterwards to celebrate. Credits: Megan Schill

Grass, Shrub, Grass… Tree! Measuring Regrowth in a Burned Forest

A black spruce sapling growing among grass in an area of taiga forest that burned in 2015. Credits: NASA/Maria-José Viñas

by Maria-Jose Viñas / NORTHWEST TERRITORIES, CANADA

“Oh, and here’s a black spruce!” exclaimed Charlotte Weinstein, an assistant research scientist at Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI), while pointing at a delicate sapling barely the height of a thumb that was almost hidden among the tall grass.

Weinstein and her colleague Shannon Rose, a research fellow at University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UM-A), were painstakingly counting and cataloguing each plant growing in a one-by-one-meter square plot set up in a taiga forest in a remote corner of Canada’s Northwest Territories. The forest burned in 2015, and the wildfire left behind an austere landscape of blackened thin trunks sticking out from the ground, interspersed with patches of exposed limestone rock that had previously been covered by a thick mat of organic soil that burned during the fire.

Four years after the event, vegetation is growing again. But how different will it be from the original taiga forest? Will the new shrubs and trees and the reforming organic soil layer be able to store a similar amount of carbon? Will the changes in plant composition and soil moisture also affect the animal species dependent on the forest?

Charlotte Weinstein (right) and Shannon Rose catalogue all growing in a one-by-one-meter square plot. Credits: NASA/Maria-José Viñas

To answer those questions and more, groups of researchers from all over the United States and Canada are flocking to the Northwest Territories in summer 2019 to carry field work under the umbrella of NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a comprehensive field campaign that probes the resilience of Arctic and boreal  ecosystems and societies to environmental change – including wildfires.

Weinstein and Rose worked together with Mike Battaglia (MTRI) and Paul Siqueira (UM-A), who took measurements of soil moisture and active layer depth (the top layer of soil that thaws during the summer and freezes in autumn) while the women counted plants. The researchers had all been doing field work for days when a small team of NASA communicators, including this writer, visited them in the field on Aug. 17; they still had about a dozen field sites to explore in the upcoming days. After sampling the burned area, the group moved on to a nearby swath of intact forest – in there, under the canopy of the intact trees, the carbon-rich soil was incredibly squishy and would sink under one’s steps, enveloping my hiking boots in bright green moss.

The active layer and soil moisture measurements were repeated in the unburned forest, but this time the researchers were also gauging plant biomass. Weinstein and Rose started measuring the diameter and height of all trees within a 10-by-10-meter square, while Battaglia dug a pit and extracted a large cube of dark soil to measure and take samples of the organic layers. Because the soil is frozen most of the year in the Arctic and boreal regions, the organic matter within doesn’t decompose. As a result, soils in those parts of the world often sequester more carbon than the trees and shrubs growing on them.

Mike Battaglia holds up a block of carbon-rich soil extracted from an unburned forest near Kakisa, Northwest Territories, Canada. Credits: NASA/Maria-José Viñas

After their field campaign, the team’s measurements of plant composition, biomass, soil moisture and active layer will become part of ABoVE’s  wealth of publicly-shared data.

“Our end game is to incorporate all field and remote sensing measurements into computer models to understand the long-term change of the land,” Battaglia said.