ACT-America: Barbecue, Cold Fronts and a Diversion from the Plan

A six-hour flight makes for a long day, but I’m so glad to learn more about NASA’s Earth science missions and how even the seemingly simplest things — such as clouds and climate — can have intricacies and complexities that people devote their whole lives to studying.

by Andrea Lloyd / NASA’S WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY /

Sunday, 1900

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility may not be on your immediate radar. It’s located in the northeastern corner of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, near Chincoteague Island. I sit at Woody’s Serious Food, a beachy-styled outdoor food stand on the island. They definitely have some of the best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve ever had — the kind where the flavor is all in the meat rather than the sauce. Coming from Texas, praising someone else’s barbecue is a huge compliment. I swat a mosquito and shoo a seagull away from my table. Driving up from Hampton Roads, I wasn’t visiting the area for the near-perfect corn fritters.

My backpack held an assortment of things, from a battery charger and laptop so I could write, to breakfast biscuits and pretzel crackers to munch on. My dad, ever the optimist, recommended that I eat peanut butter the morning of — because it tastes the same coming up as it does going down. I’d been warned that some passengers get motion sickness from the low altitude the plane flies to take measurements. Credits: Andrea Lloyd

 

Tomorrow morning will be an Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-America, flight — my first airborne science campaign flight. The night before, I sat at home trying to determine what does someone actually bring on a science flight. Joe Atkinson, my coworker, recommended a jacket and motion sickness pills, so of course that was on the list. I threw together some snacks, my laptop, headphones — not so different from what I brought on the commercial flight I took earlier this year to get to Virginia for my public affairs internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton.

Monday, 0800

“Today is a cold front,” says Ken Davis, ACT-America’s principal investigator from Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. “We will be measuring the changes in greenhouse gases along this frontal boundary.”

While cold fronts in general are old news, the ACT-America team will be looking at the concentrations of greenhouse gases around the front to help improve computational models. The atmosphere behaves like a cyclone, swirling and mixing the air. These science flights are collecting data to help validate simulations of this mixing. Understanding this global redistribution of gases for our planet will be vital in coming years, which means we need to learn about the sources and sinks of greenhouse gases now.

Flight crew, science crew and ground crew discuss the best flight plan, considering the weather across the large area our plane will traverse. Davis, second from left, reminds everyone that specificity is important when writing about data measurements, since it helps clear up confusion that can occur later. Credits: Andrea Lloyd

In order to determine a flight plan for the day, pilots and researchers work together to consider both the safety of the aircraft and its passengers, and the science goals. Factors that affect this are the terrain, the weather forecast across multiple states and the desired data for the science team. Even though researchers want to be near the cold front, when hot and cold air masses collide, thunderstorms will occur. No pilot wants to fly through those — particularly on a plane containing sensitive scientific instruments.

There were actually two flights following the same cold front that day. One of these was a Beechcraft Super King Air B200 (the green path) and the other was the C-130 I was on (the blue path). The red diversion you see comes later on in the story, where we avoid a thunderstorm. Credits: NASA

Ultimately, because of the Appalachian Mountains and the potential thunderstorms, we choose a route to go ahead of the cold front to collect data, then circle back to get the same corridor after the storm pushes through.

1000

I board a C-130 Hercules, originally used as a Coast Guard cargo transport before joining NASA’s ranks. There I meet the other passengers, both human and instrument. Active remote sensing and in situ units are used on this flight, allowing science researchers to analyze and validate trace amounts of target gases during the flight. Using different instruments together paints a more detailed picture of the data collected.

I climb into the cockpit ready to watch the take off. Because of how loud the plane is while airborne, we’re required to wear ear protection. My heart beats a little faster. Logically, this shouldn’t be much different than an ordinary commercial flight. But strapping in a 4-point harness instead of a lap belt and hearing the pilots chatter through large green pilot headphones makes everything 10 times cooler.

It was really cool to hear the C-130 pilots communicate with other aircraft. Some of the maneuvers for an airborne science campaign are different than a commercial aircraft would use, like dipping to lower altitudes or doing wide spiral turns. Our pilots jokingly speculated that the other planes probably thought we were crazy doing such unusual flight patterns. Credits: Andrea Lloyd

1100

At this point, I venture to the cargo area, where the science crew sits. While those on the ground are probably eating sandwiches for lunch, most of the crew has snacks. Rory Barton-Grimly has a rice dish in the back that I assume he heated up in the microwave. Josh DiGangi eats red licorice, his favorite science flight snack, and offers to share with everyone. Max Eckl bites into a green Granny Smith apple while monitoring one of the systems.

Between chewing, one of us notices that our flight path passes over a slice of Canada, which spurs a lively discussion about buying red licorice in bulk at international grocery chains, further digressing into what a wholesale store is for some of the foreign-based scientists.

In the background, past the microwave and fridge, you can see Shawn Corliss, the C-130 loadmaster, and Steven Schill. Schill is in charge of the data systems, different than the instruments. His systems record things like the flight location, time and other constants to which researchers can compare their instrument data. Credits: Andrea Lloyd

1230

To reach the varying heights the researchers need to make their greenhouse gas measurements, the pilots will fly as low as 1,000 feet and as high as 21,000 feet. Sometimes they maneuver into long spirals that carry us up or down from one altitude to the next. Brian Bernth, the pilot for our flight, explains to me that flying for science airborne campaigns isn’t that much different from any other flights. “You do what you always do, the same flight planning, the same approach to weather,” he says. But these flights aren’t about getting to the next location faster or doing a maneuver quickly, which he experienced as a military pilot.

“Depending on the instrumentation on a plane, there are some serious limitations based on what the instruments need,” says Bernth. Keeping aware of the sensitivities of the equipment can be really important. Some lidar systems shut off when they’re over a certain angular degree. Plus, you have the science crew to worry about. “You are always trying to provide as smooth a platform as possible for them,” Bernth continues.

Brian Bernth, our pilot, is a retired Marine aviator of 20-plus years. In the green flight suit you can see co-pilot Rodney Turbak and behind Bernth is the flight engineer, Kerry Gros. “Flying is flying,” Bernth says, but he acknowledges there are certain restraints he has to keep in mind when pushing the aircraft through these long science flights. Credits: Andrea Lloyd

1500

After flying over Michigan and the edge of Canada, the plane is soaring over Pennsylvania when we learn there are thunderstorms up ahead on our final leg. The flight crew and science crew talk back and forth for a little while, deliberating about the best course of action. To keep the crew, equipment and plane safe, they eventually decide to divert from the original plan and fly around some storms, then head directly back to NASA Wallops. (Our diversion is visible on the map where the red line splits off from the blue one.)

1635

After landing and securing everything on the plane, the entire team meets in a conference room for a debrief, sharing the day’s highlights and lessons learned. Ken Davis and the crew talk about the data they collected from the flight and discuss possibilities for the remaining flights, always dependent on the weather. The data today captures snapshots across the entire cold front at different altitudes, which will help to validate and improve the computer models’ predictions.

This internship really was an amazing experience. I learned more about NASA’s missions in Earth, space, and aeronautics. I learned more about how to cover stories in engaging and in-depth ways. Credits: Joe Atkinson

A six-hour flight makes for a long day, but I’m so glad to learn more about NASA’s Earth science missions and how even the seemingly simplest things — such as clouds and climate — can have intricacies and complexities that people devote their whole lives to studying. As July draws to an end, so does this last of five ACT-America field campaigns. The researchers will return to their desks to draw conclusions from their new data and the pilots will fly other flights for other airborne campaigns.

1900

Driving away from NASA Wallops and leaving the Eastern Shore signals a close to my public affairs internship. What remains is to pack my suitcases for the ride back to Texas, throwing the same jacket, laptop and earphones in a backpack. While on one hand I can’t wait for the slow-cooked brisket and Whataburger fries, I will definitely return with greater appreciation of NASA’s dedication to understanding the universe we live in.

ACT-America completed its final science flights July 27.

Plumes Go the Distance

True color satellite image of Canada and the northern United States on July 23, 2019. Fires in northern Alberta (red dots in top left) produced smoke that traveled to the Great Lakes (bottom right) over the course of a few days. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview
True color satellite image of Canada and the northern United States on July 23, 2019. Fires in northern Alberta (red dots in top left) produced smoke that traveled to the Great Lakes (bottom right) over the course of a few days. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

From Alberta, Canada, to Michigan, USA. That’s how far the plumes of smoke traveled in a few short days, from July 21 to July 24. Smoke from wildfires has staying power.

Laura Thapa, a graduate student at the University of California Los Angeles and member of the FIREX-AQ forecasting team, has been monitoring the smoke from the northern Alberta fires over the last few days. She and her team first took notice of the plume on July 21, when its leading edge had already traversed half of the approximately 2000-mile journey to the Great Lakes by July 24.

Tracing a plumes’ journey accomplishes two main goals for FIREX-AQ. “It lets us verify the forecast models,” Laura said. The forecast team wants to improve and fine tune a number of smoke transport models that use weather and other data to project where smoke plumes end up.

In particular, scientists want to know where the fine particulate aerosols called PM 2.5 go. The microscopic particles are one of the biggest health hazards associated with fires. When breathed in, they can lodge deep in the lungs, causing irritation and coughing. Long term exposure has been linked to higher rates of respiratory and heart problems.

“I have asthma, so that’s my vested interest,” Laura said. It’s also the vested interest of the U.S. Forest Service, which leads the interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency that closely monitors PM 2.5 and tries to limit exposure to communities downwind of fires.

The other goal tracking plumes serves is much more practical during the campaign. As the fire season progresses, background smoke from fires-in-progress may be present in the air when a new fire starts and a new plume develops. Keeping track of plumes as they travel helps tease out what fires contributed to the smoke the science team is measuring in the DC-8.

“Understanding the transport is important for seeing what’s going on,” Laura said.

The DC-8 Goes the Distance, too

The DC-8 takes off from Boise, Idaho, for a science flight on July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA
The DC-8 takes off from Boise, Idaho, for a science flight on July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

The FIREX-AQ team will be in Boise through August 18, but for the Communications team our coverage is at an end. For now.

After Boise, the DC-8, Twin Otters, Mobile Labs, and everything else FIREX-AQ brought with them to Boise will travel to Salina, Kansas, to study prescribed agricultural fires which have different fuels and emissions.

Stay tuned.

 

Join us on @NASAExpeditions Twitter and NASA Expeditions Facebook for more from FIREX-AQ in Boise. Our coverage in Salina will continue on @NASAEarth and the NASA Earth Facebook page.

Fire Weather, Pyro Weather

True color satellite image from MODIS on July 28, 2019. The red dots are fires detected by the MODIS and VIIRS instruments. In southwest Oregon, the smoke plume from the Milepost 97 fire is visible. Credit: NASA EOSDIS/ Worldview
True color satellite image from MODIS on July 28, 2019, of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The red dots are fires detected by the MODIS and VIIRS instruments. In southwest Oregon, the smoke plume from the Milepost 97 Fire is visible. The red dot in central Idaho is the Shady Fire. Credit: NASA EOSDIS / Worldview

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

Each morning Amber Soja gets up at 5:00 a.m. to check the fire weather. She’s an associate scientist from the National Institute of Aerospace based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, one of the lead forecasters for FIREX-AQ with one of the most important jobs: distilling the information from the National Weather Service, the National Interagency Fire Center, and other satellite and model info into a short list of fires for the DC-8 to visit the next day. All by 8 a.m.

Understanding fire weather is a big part of the job. Fire weather is the term used to describe weather conditions favorable for fires to start or burn, a mixture of high temperature, low humidity, zero to low rainfall, and high winds.

“Fire weather is the potential to have the fire behavior that we want to see,” Amber said. Hot, dry and windy conditions build over the course of a day’s worth of sunshine, so that where fire weather conditions are present in the morning, fires in the same area are likely to become active in the late afternoon. And for the FIREX-AQ science team, active usually means a smoke plume to fly through.

The National Weather Service puts out daily maps of where they forecast fire weather to be elevated. This map came out on July 28, 2019. Credit: NOAA/ NWS
The National Weather Service puts out daily maps of where they forecast fire weather to be elevated. This map came out on July 28, 2019. Credit: NOAA/ NWS

At 10:00 a.m., Amber presents her team’s short list of fires to the science team at the daily morning briefing. This is the meeting where decisions are made about where and when to fly the DC-8. In a neat table projected on the wall, the fire short-list also takes into account the types of fuel on the ground – the second major ingredient for wildfires, and one that can change the chemistry of the plume whether its grassland or timber – as well as location, size, and what action is being taken to monitor and fight the fire, among other considerations.

While Amber is putting together the fire outlook, David Peterson from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California, is working with a team of meteorologists and forecasters to monitor and forecast weather systems. It’s a slightly amped up version of a local weather newscast, and includes current conditions and outlooks for high and low pressure systems, moisture, and cloudiness that could hamper the DC-8. By 9:00 a.m. they’re analyzing their model results, and at the 10 a.m. briefing, David shares the forecast with the science team.

The forecasting team meets early everyday to look at upcoming fire and weather conditions. July 28, 2019. Credit: NASA
The forecasting team meets early everyday to look at upcoming fire and weather conditions. July 28, 2019. Credit: NASA

He’s also on the lookout for the potential for a different type of weather – weather generated by the fires themselves.

“A fire is a heat source. It’s creating a strong updraft,” David said. The smoky air above a large, hot fire shoots upward like going up a chimney, and in the void left behind, more air is sucked in from the sides, which gets heated and lofted. When this fire-generated circulation lofts the smoke high enough, from 15,000 to 30,000 feet, and there’s moisture at the higher altitudes, pyrocumulonimbus clouds can form – also known as smoke-infused thunderstorms.

These billowing, smoke-polluted storms don’t really produce rain, but lightning strikes are possible. They can also, in some cases, loft a large smoke plume into the upper atmosphere (stratosphere), where it can circulate around the globe, similar to the impact from a volcanic eruption.

With each daily forecast, David is on the lookout for conditions that might produce pyro-clouds and thunderstorms. In the coming week, the weather over the Shady Fire looks promising, but only time – and a little luck – will tell.

UPDATE Aug 13, 2019: The DC-8 flew through a pyrocumulous cloud on August 8 generated by a fire in eastern Washington. David got to sit in the cockpit and see the cloud from the air. See the stunning pictures and read more about it at NASA’s Earth Observatory Image of the Day.

Join us on @NASAExpeditions Twitter and NASA Expeditions Facebook for more from FIREX-AQ.

A Visit to the National Interagency Fire Center

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is the nerve center for fire fighting operations in the United States. Credit: NASA
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is the nerve center for firefighting operations in the United States. Credit: NASA

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

The FIREX-AQ campaign is flying out of Boise, Idaho. The choice of location was no accident. Boise is also home to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the nerve center of all major firefighting operations for the United States. Earlier this week, we took a tour.

“NIFC is not an organization, it’s a place. Each big bureau dealing with fires has people here,” said Kari Cobb, our tour guide with the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of Interior that hosts the center.

In addition to the Bureau of Land Management, the agencies working together to put out major wildfires, support the crews in the field and assist with other disasters include the National Association of State Foresters, the USDA Forest Service, the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, the United States Fire Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The center is located next to the Boise Airport – across from the Idaho Air National Guard where the DC-8 is stationed for FIREX-AQ. Airport access is essential for the helicopters and planes used to deliver crews and supplies to firefighting teams in the field, and also for reconnaissance planes that survey active fires with infrared instruments to detect hotspots hidden by smoke plumes.

The Radio Cache

The NIFC Radio Cache has a team of technicians that check and refurbish every single handheld radio and repeater. They will replace faulty parts down to the transistor to extend the radios' lifetimes. Credit: NASA
The NIFC Radio Cache has a team of technicians that check and refurbish every single handheld radio and repeater. They will replace faulty parts down to the transistor to extend the radios’ lifetimes. Credit: NASA

In order to coordinate, you need to be able to communicate. NIFC’s Radio Cache ensures that’s possible. They manage, repair and refurbish the 11,000 handheld radios and radio repeaters that get delivered to firefighters in the field. They deliver the equipment in kits that are already pre-programmed to be ready to plug-and-play as soon as they arrive. While all the radios are ultimately managed and dispatched from Boise, they pre-position equipment closer to likely fire activity and other disaster-prone areas.

The Great Basin Cache

NIFC's Great Basin Cache supplies all of a firefighter's gear except for their boots. Credit: NASA
NIFC’s Great Basin Cache supplies all of a firefighter’s gear except for their boots. Credit: NASA

When you’ve got people fighting fires for weeks on end, you need a place for them to sleep, eat and manage day-to-day operations. Kari described the giant warehouse that makes up the Great Basin Cache as the “Costco” of wildland fire management. It’s the largest of the 16 caches set up in different parts of the country, and has everything needed for the Incident Command Posts, from tents, sleeping bags, tables, and coffee, to firefighters’ personal protective gear, and the shovels, Pulaskis (axe plus flat-head scraper), MCleods (a type of rake) and combi-tools (with a shovel and pick head) they use to clear vegetation and dig fire breaks.

Smokejumpers

Smokejumpers wear Kevlar jump suits to avoid punctures from rocks and branches when they land in rough terrain. They also carry extra rope for getting out of trees. Credit: NASA
Smokejumpers wear Kevlar jump suits to avoid punctures from rocks and branches when they land in rough terrain. They also carry extra rope for getting out of trees. Credit: NASA

There are plenty of people willing to jump out of perfectly good airplanes, but not nearly as many willing to jump out of a plane next to a wildfire. In the United States, there are 450 in fact, and 80 to 85 of these smokejumpers are stationed out of Boise at any given time. Currently most of the Boise smokejumpers are at out-stations, located across the West to be closer to fire-prone areas.

They’re delivered to remote fires by Twin Otter aircraft and jump from 3000 feet in special gear made of Kevlar that each smokejumper has made themselves (they’re required to know how to sew and use a sewing machine.) They jump with one main parachute, a reserve parachute and two days of personal gear. Once they’re on the ground, the plane drops supply kits for two firefighters for two days. Their regular firefighting gear is on under their jump suit, which they stash before getting to work.  Once they’ve done their initial assessment and work at the fire site, relaying info back to base, they hike out.

National Weather Service Boise

The National Weather Service Boise station forecasts fire weather and monitor lightning strikes which can cause fires. Credit: NASA
The National Weather Service Boise station forecasts fire weather and monitors lightning strikes which can cause fires. Credit: NASA

Weather conditions – wind, humidity, rain and temperature – are fundamental to understanding what a fire is doing and where it will go next. The National Weather Service station in Boise monitors and forecasts weather for southwest Idaho and western Oregon. They’re staffed 24 hours a day, and use satellite imagery and models to forecast not only the weather, but fire weather – conditions favorable for burning. They also track lightning strikes, which are one of the main causes of wildfires in the region.

National Interagency Coordination Center

NIFC's National Interagency Coordination Center supports fire fighting efforts across the country. Credit: NASA
NIFC’s National Interagency Coordination Center supports firefighting efforts across the country. Credit: NIFC

Putting it all together is the National Interagency Coordination Center – effectively a national dispatch center, which manages the support resources and sends them into the field where they are needed. Fire management begins locally, at the town or county level. When their capacity for fighting a wildfire is exceeded, they go to their regional support center, one of eleven spread throughout the country. When their resources are exceeded, that’s when they call on the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise – who then pulls crews from other regions, and sometimes Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to help put out the fires. They also supply information, helicopters and water tankers, and handle getting food and showers in place at the Incident Command Post.

 

Join us on @NASAExpeditions Twitter and NASA Expeditions Facebook for more from FIREX-AQ.

The Shady Fire, a Deviation From Plan

The Shady Fire smoke plume seen from the DC-8 on Thursday, July 25. Credit: Bernadett Weinzierl, University of Vienna
The Shady Fire smoke plume seen from the DC-8 on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Credit: Bernadett Weinzierl, University of Vienna

By Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

Thursday, July 25

“It’s nice to have a flight plan to deviate from,” said DC-8 pilot Tim Vest at the debrief on Thursday night. It was just after 10 p.m. and the DC-8 had just returned from a 6-hour flight over a fire they weren’t planning on visiting.

The original plan for the afternoon was to fly to eastern Washington State, where several fires were burning in clear skies. But wildfires are tricky things. That morning during flight planning, the Shady Fire, less than 30 minutes away by air in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, didn’t look like it was going to generate an impressive smoke plume. But a half hour before take-off at 4 p.m., after the instrument teams were aboard and the DC-8’s doors were closed, the scientists staying behind to monitor the flight from the ground pulled down new satellite images.

“They said, take a look at the Shady Fire once you’re in the air,” said Carsten Warneke from the University of Colorado working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. He’s one of FIREX-AQ‘s project scientists and was sitting in the DC-8’s cockpit jump seat as Thursday’s flight mission scientist.

Flying north on their original plan to the Washington fires, Carsten  – and everyone else with an eastern-facing seat – looked out the window. Shady’s smoke plume was big and billowing. The hot and dry conditions of the late afternoon had invigorated the fire and helped to loft its smoke thousands of feet into the atmosphere.

The Shady Fire seen from the ground in the Salmon-Challis National Forest on Friday, June 26. Credit: U.S. Forest Service
The Shady Fire seen from the ground in the Salmon-Challis National Forest on Friday, June 26, 2019. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

“It was very exciting,” said Carsten. Measuring smoke was why the science team was flying. “But it was also a surprise. We had a completely different flight plan, but then there was that plume.”

So, less than half an hour after take-off, the flight plan changed.

Fortunately, the Shady Fire had been the second fire on the list for the previous day’s flight, although they’d only made one pass over its then-low-lying plume. Tim Vest and his co-pilot, Dave Fedors, both from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, were able to use the that plan once they redirected.

Aboard the Aboard the DC-8, monitors show Wednesday's flight plan in black overlaid by the actual path of the plane in red. On the left you can see the sharp right turn from diverting from the original plan. At this point in the flight they'd completed one sequence of the lawnmower sampling path. Credit: NASADC-8, monitors show Wednesday's flight plan in black overlaid by the actual path of the plane in red. At this point in the flight they'd completed one sequence of the lawnmower sampling path. Credit: NASA
Aboard the DC-8, monitors show Wednesday’s flight plan in black overlaid by the actual path of the plane in red. On the left you can see the sharp right turn from diverting from the original plan. At this point in the flight they’d completed one sequence of the lawnmower sampling path. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

Flying over a wilderness area was a huge advantage. With no other air traffic, aside from a pass from a plane gathering a hotspot survey for the U.S. Forest Service, the pilots had a lot of room to work with. They guided the plane in a series of maneuvers that began with flying above the plume at 15,000 feet to gather data from the remote sensing instruments. Then they cruised to a lower altitude of about 5,000 feet above the terrain and flew through the plume in a pattern called “the lawnmower” that cut north-south back and forth across the eastward-stretching plume. By the time they’d completed the first pass, the plume had been spread by winds farther east, and the smoke gases had been reacting in the atmosphere for about two and a half hours since they began. So they went back to the source and “mowed” it again, and then did a third pass east to west through the length of the plume. By the time they headed back to Boise, the plume had extended to the Wyoming border.

Flying through the plume, it was surprisingly dark, said Carsten. During each lawnmower pass, they had zero visibility where the smoke was thickest, closer toward the Shady Fire’s vertical plume (which they didn’t fly through because it was too hot and turbulent). The light that filtered in, especially as they moved toward the less dense eastern end, was yellowish-brown that snapped to clear once they exited the smoke on each perpendicular pass.

“It was smelly, too,” said Carsten. “Not as bad as I was expecting but it still smelled like smoke.”

The view from the jump seat right after take-off. From here, Carsten as mission scientist can easily communicate with the pilots and flight engineer in the cockpit. Credit: NASA
The view from the jump seat right after take-off. From here, Carsten as mission scientist can easily communicate with the pilots and flight engineer in the cockpit. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

As mission scientist, Carsten was in charge of meeting the science goals of the flight. This largely meant he was frequently switching between chatting with the ground team who had the updating satellite imagery and two different headsets on the plane: one on the science team channel where requests for adjustments were flying thick and fast, and one on the pilot channel to figure out what was possible and safe for the aircraft. Balancing all that information, Carsten directed the details of the flight to try to get the best measurements for everyone.

“Then after we turned at the end of each pass, I would call out on the science channel ‘Get ready we’re measuring smoke in 30 seconds,'” he said.

A close up of the Shady Fire's smoke plume during sampling on July 25, 2019. Credit: Bernadett Weinzierl, University of Vienna
A close up of the Shady Fire’s smoke plume during sampling on July 25, 2019. Credit: Bernadett Weinzierl, University of Vienna

The Shady Fire started from a lightning strike on July 10 at about 6 p.m. Since it’s in a wilderness area far from populated areas, the U.S. Forest Service has closed nearby roads and trails and is monitoring it, but otherwise letting it burn for now – with the exception of protecting specific buildings and assets in the area. So far it has burned more than 2600 acres of primarily subalpine fir and lodgepole pine trees.

For the FIREX-AQ science team the Shady Fire is exactly what they’re looking for to study smoke dynamics in the atmosphere – what are the gases and airborne particles in plumes and how do they evolve as they age and spread downwind.

“We’re measuring everything a non-chemist knows about and then 500 more chemicals,” said Carsten. The DC-8 is loaded up with instruments and more than 30 scientists to run them during flight. Among the gases they’re measuring are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides, as well as particulate aerosols including soot and black carbon.

The interior of the DC-8 has instruments where seats would be on a commercial plane. They suck smoke inside through inlets and tubing that connect to the instruments. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA
The interior of the DC-8 has instruments where seats would be on a commercial plane. They suck smoke inside through inlets and tubing that connect to the instruments. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

They’re also measuring chemicals formed in the plume, such as ozone. Ozone near Earth’s surface is a pollutant and health hazard that the Environmental Protection Agency monitors to evaluate air quality. It forms from a reaction of nitrogen oxides with volatile organic compounds (both emitted in large amounts from the fire) in the presence sunlight (that often forgotten ingredient in atmospheric chemistry.) During Thursday’s flight, the team saw ozone forming in the plume.

The science team’s excitement was palpable when they returned, and the instrument teams spent Friday getting a first crack at their data. Their deviation from the plan had been a huge success.

At the Friday morning briefing, when the team was taking a look at their options in Washington and Oregon for Saturday’s proposed flight, project scientist Jim Crawford from NASA Langley said, “Put together a flight plan for each of them.”

“And,” said Jack Dibb, project scientist from University of New Hampshire, “have a plan for Shady in our back-pocket.”

 

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Laying Down with Smoke in the Valley, an Unexpected Camping Trip

Bruce Anderson and the NASA Langley Mobile Lab in a valley near Stanley, Idaho. July 24, 2019.
Bruce Anderson and the NASA Langley Mobile Lab in a valley near Stanley, Idaho. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

By Ellen Gray / NEAR STANLEY, IDAHO /

Wednesday, July 24

We were ready to fly. We’d heard Tuesday evening that there were two seats open on the DC-8 for the communications team on Wednesday, but as often happens in the field, plans change. For the first science flight, requests for extra seats from the instrument teams came in after the morning briefing. Safety first, science second, and communications third. But rolling with the change of plans opens up new opportunities, and ours was leaving at 2 p.m.

Out in the hangar parking lot, the NASA Langley Mobile Laboratory was getting ready to head into the Idaho wilderness. The van is big, boxy, and white. Unmarked, it looks like the kind of van movie FBI agents use for surveillance, but inside the equipment is designed to watch the sky. Specifically, the small team of five is looking at trace gases and aerosols from smoke plumes that will sink to valley floors during the night when temperatures cool.

The Langley Mobile Lab is one of two that will be deployed to take ground-level measurements during the FIREX-AQ field campaign. Ideally, the team parks the van downwind from a blazing fire whose smoke flows over the van site, said Bruce Anderson, the principle investigator for the NASA Langley Aerosol Research Group Experiment that runs the van. From their parking spot, they’ll watch the emissions evolve as the fire goes from hot and intense to smoldering and from hot daytime temperatures to cold nights and back to day.

With about two hours’ notice, Bruce graciously agreed to let us tag along. “Do you have camping gear?” he asked.

I had a sleeping bag I hadn’t expected to use during FIREX-AQ. None of us had meant to sleep anywhere but at our hotel. But this trip was too good to pass up. We reassured Bruce that we’d make do.

Landscape Shaped By Fire

Burned trees and recovering undergrowth at varying stages make up the National Forests along Highway 21 in Idaho. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Burned trees and recovering undergrowth at varying stages make up the National Forests along Highway 21 in Idaho. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

Because of the van’s size, Bruce drove the long way on the major highways to Stanley, Idaho, a town in the middle of the Sawtooth National Recreational Area. We took the more direct and windier Highway 21 through the Boise and Challis National Forests.

Boise is located on a plain, with brown hills dotted by shrubs dominating the landscape. As we drove northeast, the hills gave way to forests of lodgepole pines and subalpine firs. Fires’ mark on the landscape soon became clear.

Fire is part of the ecosystem in the western U.S., leaving behind ghostly trees and charred soil that will grow new life. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Fire is part of the ecosystem in the western U.S., leaving behind ghostly trees and charred soil that will grow new life. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

Amid the green trees of the forest, we passed entire slopes of ghostly trees, burned pale and dead but still standing with bare branches. On some slopes, grasses and scrub had regrown. On others, smaller baby trees made up the understory. On still more, the burned ghost trees were interspersed with healthy green trees at the same height – likely grown to maturity after the fire. The marks of past fires were everywhere – and then we passed the blackened char of recently contained fires.

The Canyon Fire and the Vader Fire were both near the road, and while the flames were out where and when we saw them – each fire was 75-80% contained at that point – smoke was smoldering from a few hotspots on the ground. The Canyon Fire started from a lightning strike on July 14, a common cause for wildland fires. The Vader Fire’s cause is still unknown.

Nighttime Science

Our campsite near Stanley, Idaho, was in the middle of a long and wide valley, framed by mountains. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Sunrise at our campsite near Stanley, Idaho. We were in the middle of a long and wide valley, framed by mountains. July 25, 2019. Credit: NASA

We met up with the team in Stanley at the end of Highway 21 around dinner time. It’s a tiny town with a tiny population of 63 that is the launching point for seasonal visitors to the Sawtooth’s and surrounding national forests. After three hours of driving with no reception, it’s also a welcome oasis of internet and cell service within the wilderness – essential for meeting up with the Mobile Lab caravan.

In addition to Bruce, Jackson Kaspari from the University of New Hampshire and Jiajue Chai from Brown University were driving an RV to make the camping a little easier. In a separate car were Kathleen Brunke from Christopher Newport University and Carolyn Jordan from the National Institute of Aerospace with tents and camping gear. They were all looking forward to being in the field for FIREX-AQ.

“It’s a little like science camp,” said Carolyn. “You get to go out with all these people who study the same thing you do.” She raised her hands in an excited pantomime of sharing data. “What did you get? Here’s what I got!”

After dinner we headed out back the way we came a few miles down a long and wide valley with a stream running through it, and then off onto a lengthy gravel road to our campsite in the middle of the meadow.

We helped Carolyn set up tents for the night while the others got their instruments running. She joined them in the van right afterwards.July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
We helped Carolyn set up tents for the night while the others got their instruments running. She joined them in the van right afterwards. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

Off in the distance a plume of smoke from the Shady Fire to the north drifted by the nearby hills. Before sunset and after testing the wind direction, the scientists got to work setting up their instruments in the van – running the power generator, opening intake valves and hatches to the outside air, attaching filters to catch particulate aerosols. It was a clear night, and in the end not much smoke made its way to the middle of the valley where we were.

“It’s a little like fishing,” Bruce said. You do your best to find a good spot based on the information and weather, but sometimes the smoke doesn’t bite.

Earlier in the week, Sunday night to Monday morning, however, the Mobile Lab at the same site caught a lot of smoke from a fire near the highway. The smoke plume sank to the valley around midnight, and the team measured the height of the smoke particles with an infrared laser looking upward and bouncing off the particles back to the laser.

Jackson climbs to the roof of the van to open and set up the inlet valve that will suck exterior air into the van. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Jackson climbs to the roof of the van to open and set up the inlet valve that will suck exterior air into the van. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

In the van, each researcher had an instrument measuring different aspects of the smoke and addressing different science questions. Carolyn’s instrument measured the scattering or absorption of light by smoke particles. The scattering tells her about the size and shape of the particles, and the absorption something about their chemical composition. Kathleen was collecting particulates in the air that she will take back to the lab to measure for heavy metals – evidence that bits of soil got burned and swept up into the smoke plume – and PM 2.5, the particulate matter size that can cause respiratory problems for people who breathe it in.

Jackson’s instrument collected air into hand-blown glass chambers filled with mist that serves as seed points to collect nitrite (NO2), nitrate (NO3), and sulfate (SO4) that then run through chromatography to determine their concentrations. Jiajue’s instrument collected air samples to measure for nitrogen oxides and nitrous and nitric acid. Nitrogen compounds are essential for determining the role ozone plays in the atmosphere. Ozone reacts readily with other gases in chains of chemical reactions that can ultimately process harmful gases like greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Jiajue also uses nitrogen and oxygen isotope ratios to “fingerprint” the fuel source of the air – whether the smoke came from vehicles, soils or burned vegetation.

Jiajue prepares sample bottles for his instrument inside the Mobile Lab. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Jiajue prepares sample bottles for his instrument inside the Mobile Lab. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Bruce and Carolyn look at initial readings of gases inside the van. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Bruce and Carolyn look at initial readings of gases inside the van. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

Bruce was a one-man show monitoring 14 instruments that doubled up some of the others’ measurements and also took measurements of major gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), whose ratio of one to the other can determine whether the smoke came from a hot intense fire (low CO) or smoldering fire (higher CO). Another instrument measures the mass of soot in the air, and others look at the optical properties of soot and various gases so that they can ultimately improve satellite interpretations of plume composition.

Together these individual measurements build a more complete understanding of how smoke particles and gases react and evolve in the atmosphere, what they say about their fuel sources, and ultimately how they affect the air quality people encounter downwind.

Kathleen sets up her instrument that will filter exterior air and capture airborne particles on filters. She'll take the filters, frozen to preserve them, back to her lab at the end of the campaign for analysis. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA
Kathleen sets up her instrument that will filter exterior air and capture airborne particles on filters. She’ll take the filters, frozen to preserve them, back to her lab at the end of the campaign for analysis. July 24, 2019. Credit: NASA

On a smoky night, the researchers barely sleep. While some of the instruments are fully automated, they often monitor them until past midnight, and Kathleen and Jiajue have to swap out filters and sample bottles every few hours.

The night we were out they got a reprieve, but Bruce stayed up most of the night anyway to monitor the instruments and make sure everything was running smoothly. Also, the cold made it difficult to sleep. While it was 95 degrees F in sunlight, the dry, cloudless Idaho night doesn’t hold moisture, and so temperatures dropped to below freezing, making the noisy, generator-heated van the warmest spot in camp. Those of us without proper camping gear, ended up sleeping in the car.

Despite the cold, we woke to a beautiful sunrise and to smoke plumes from the Shady Fire edging the valley. The Mobile Lab team packed up and headed back to Stanley for breakfast and to call in to the morning briefing on fire activity to find out where they were going next.

Join us on @NASAExpeditions Twitter and NASA Expeditions Facebook for more from FIREX-AQ.

Fires and Smoke with FIREX-AQ: Live from Idaho

by Ellen Gray / BOISE, IDAHO/

NASA, NOAA and university researchers are on an Earth expedition this summer studying fires and their smoke in the U.S. West. On July 23 from Boise, Idaho, the Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments and Air Quality or FIREX-AQ, kicked off its study of fire smoke, what gases and tiny particulates are in it, and how they evolve and travel over the course of the fire’s lifespan and beyond. By gaining a better understanding of fire behavior and smoke plumes from direct measurements, the research done here will benefit satellite measurements and air quality forecasting in the future, as well as improve our overall understanding of fire dynamics in the atmosphere and their effects on climate.

NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory (left) and one of NOAA's Twin Otters (right) overfly fires and smoke during the FIREX-AQ campaign. They are being hosted by the Idaho National Guard's 124th Fighter Wing in Boise, Idaho.
NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory (left) and one of NOAA’s Twin Otters (right) overfly fires and smoke during the FIREX-AQ campaign. They are being hosted by the Idaho National Guard’s 124th Fighter Wing in Boise, Idaho.

I’m Ellen Gray, a NASA science writer, and myself along with two NASA video producers, Katy Mersmann and Lauren Ward, will be shadowing the science team in Boise over the next week, sharing what it’s like to do science in the field with NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory, two NOAA Twin Otter aircraft, and NASA Langley’s Mobile Laboratory, among many other moving parts that are taking measurements of smoke from the source.

We’ll be posting our day-to-day updates on the @NASAExpeditions Twitter and NASA Expeditions Facebook account and our deeper dives here and on the @NASAEarth Twitter and NASA Earth Facebook accounts. So follow along and stay tuned!

Boise is home to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), a multi agency coordination center for fighting fires across the United States. NIFC, the U.S. Forest Service, the Joint Science Fire Program, the Bureau of Land Management as well as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Air Resources Board are all partners in the FIREX-AQ campaign.
Boise is home to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), a multi-agency coordination center for fighting fires across the United States. NIFC, the U.S. Forest Service, the Joint Science Fire Program, the Bureau of Land Management as well as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Air Resources Board are all partners in the FIREX-AQ campaign.

Land Ho! Visiting a Young Island

The three year-old volcanic island (black) as seen from the SEA drone. Credit: Woods Hole
The three-year-old volcanic island (center) as seen from the SEA drone. Credit: Sea Education Association / SEA Semester

by Ellen Gray

Excitement was in the air when research scientist Dan Slayback of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, approached a small trio of islands in the South Pacific island nation of Tonga. It was October 8th, and Dan had joined the scientists and students with the Sea Education Association’s SEA Semester South Pacific cruise to visit a three-year-old island he’d only seen from space.

“There’s no map of the new land,” Dan said. It erupted from the rim of an underwater caldera in early 2015, nestled between two older islands. The older islands were on some nautical charts at coarse resolution, and the satellite observations appeared to show shallow beaches on the south side of the new island that would allow them to land. However, while satellites are powerful tools for looking at land on Earth, they are not omniscient about all the details on the ground – these beaches turned out to be too steep and the waves too rough for an easy landing.

The SSV Robert C. Seamans of Woods Hole's SEA Semester program at Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai. Credit: Dan Slayback
The SSV Robert C. Seamans of SEA Semester program at Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai in October, 2018. Credit: Dan Slayback

When the volcanic island burst into being in January 2015 it immediately captured the attention of NASA scientists keen to understand how new islands form and evolve on Earth – which may also give them clues about how volcanic landscapes interacted with water on ancient Mars. The new Tongan island is one of only three that has erupted in the last 150 years that have survived the ocean’s eroding waves longer than a few months. Dan and his colleagues Jim Garvin at Goddard and Vicki Ferrini at Columbia University have been watching it from satellites since its birth, trying to make a 3D model of its shape and volume as it changes over time to understand how much material has been eroded and what it is made of that makes it partially resistant to erosion. But while high-resolution satellite observations are revolutionary for studying remote regions – such as tiny islands in the vast Pacific Ocean – they can only tell you so much without actually visiting the place on the ground.

Dan and the SEA scientists and students, as well as a Tongan observer, sailed around to the calmer northern coast of the island, which still has no official name and is referred to by the combined names of its neighbors, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai (or HTHH for short). On October 9th, they spent the day taking GPS measurements of the location and elevation of boulders and other erosional features visible in the satellite image.

NASA researcher Dan Slayback standing on the beach of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai. Credit: NASA
NASA researcher Dan Slayback standing on the beach of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai.

“We were all like giddy school children,” said Dan of their visit. “Most of it is this black gravel, I won’t call it sand – pea sized gravel – and we’re mostly wearing sandals so it’s pretty painful because it gets under your foot. Immediately I kind of noticed it wasn’t quite as flat as it seems from satellite. It’s pretty flat, but there’s still some gradients and the gravels have formed some cool patterns from the wave action. And then there’s clay washing out of the cone. In the satellite images, you see this light-colored material. It’s mud, this light-colored clay mud. It’s very sticky. So even though we’d seen it we didn’t really know what it was, and I’m still a little baffled of where it’s coming from. Because it’s not ash.”

Editor’s  Note: Dan later learned that clayey materials washing out from the cone, even a cone from an ash-dominated eruption, is not unexpected. Similar mud deposits have been observed on other small oceanic island volcanoes, as a weathering product from tropical rains that wash fine particles down from the higher elevations and turn them into small mud-flows that are deposited in the low, flat areas around the base of the volcano.

Mud was only one of the surprises. Dan and the students were able to get up-close photos of the vegetation beginning to take root on the isthmus connecting the island to its neighbor, and patches likely seeded by bird droppings on the volcanic cone’s flank. A barn owl made a surprise appearance (they occur worldwide; the sighting was not, it turns out, particularly remarkable), likely living on the heavily vegetated older islands, as well as hundreds of nesting sooty terns that had taken shelter in the deep gullies etched into the cliffs surrounding the crater lake.

Vegetation taking root on the flat isthmus of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai. The volcanic cone is in the background. Credit: Dan Slayback
Vegetation taking root on the flat isthmus of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. The volcanic cone is in the background. Credit: Dan Slayback
Sooty terns are nesting in the gullies around the crater lake. Can you spot the chicks? Credit: Dan Slayback
Sooty terns are nesting in the gullies around the crater lake. Can you spot the chicks? Credit: Dan Slayback

But Dan was there for the rocks. In addition to collecting small samples (with Tongan permission) for mineral analysis back at Goddard’s Non Destructive Evaluation Lab, the other main goal of his visit was to figure out what the actual elevation was of the island.

“The point is to try to take the satellite imagery and tie it to a known reference point, particularly the vertical elevation. The software that generates Digital Elevation Models (a 3D map) from stereo imagery is using a geoid model, and it’s not great in remote places like this. So if you were standing there with your GPS and you’re looking at the ocean at sea level and it’s telling you you’re at four meters elevation, you’re like, But I’m not! I’m at sea level,” he said. So he wanted to find a reasonable adjustment to the geoid model for local mean sea level.

The cliffs of the crater lake are etched with erosion gullies. Credit: Dan Slayback
The cliffs of the crater lake are etched with erosion gullies. Credit: Dan Slayback

Using a high-precision GPS unit with both a stable and mobile unit, Dan and the students helping him took about 150 measurements that narrow down each point’s location and elevation to better than 10 centimeters. In addition, they used SEA’s drone to do an aerial survey of the island for another layer of observations to use to make a higher-resolution 3D map of the island.

“It really surprised me how valuable it was to be there in person for some of this. It just really makes it obvious to you what is going on with the landscape,” Dan said. One feature that was eye-opening in person was the deep erosional gullies that run down the side of the volcanic cone. “The island is eroding by rainfall much more quickly than I’d imagined. We were focused on the erosion on the south coast where the waves are crashing down, which is going on. It’s just that the whole island is going down, too. It’s another aspect that’s made very clear when you’re standing in front of these huge erosion gullies. Okay, this wasn’t here three years ago, and now it’s two meters deep.”

A SEA student takes a GPS point in one of the gullies. Credit: Dan Slayback
A SEA student takes a GPS point in one of the gullies. Credit: Dan Slayback

Dan and the SEA Semester group only had one additional morning on the island before bad weather moved in and they had to retreat to the ship. Now back at Goddard, he’s processing the new data and developing a more realistic 3D model of the island, which he and his colleagues will use to figure out its volume and how much ash and volcanic material erupted from the vent on along the rim of the submarine caldera below. Big questions remain, such as what does the shallow sea floor around the island look like and are hydrothermal processes occurring that may solidify the material and allow it to resist erosion for decades to come. Dan hopes to return next year to find more answers.

 

Meet Corey Walker, NASA Earth Science Intern and Aspiring Educator

Corey Walker presents his research findings to the Student Airborne Research Program group. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill
Corey Walker presents his research findings to the Student Airborne Research Program group. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill

By Corey Walker / NASA ARMSTRONG FLIGHT RESEARCH CENTER, PALMDALE, CALIFORNIA /

My name is Corey Walker. One of the most incredible things I’ve done on paper is become a NASA intern through the agency’s Student Airborne Research Program, otherwise known as SARP. Why? I grew up in Etowah County, Alabama which has a poverty rate well above the national average. At the end of the year, I will be one of just 8 percent of people from my hometown who will have achieved a bachelor’s degree. I’ve come to recognize that the opportunity I’ve had is somewhat of an anomaly for many who have watched my success.

I wanted to participate in this Q&A blog to share my experience with the NASA SARP program and to express my gratitude towards those who have given someone like me a chance to succeed. I also want to encourage the next generation of student scientists to apply for opportunities like SARP to broaden their skill sets and to experience what field research and lab analysis is all about.

What do you think it takes to become a NASA intern

CW: The conditions that create a NASA intern are variable depending on who you ask. However, for me it begins with ordinary people who have extraordinarily impacted my life. Along the way family, friends, teachers, and mentors have taught me the value of perseverance,  working hard, and pushing yourself beyond known limits.

Corey interacts with fellow SARP interns on the flightline at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Researcher Center’s facility in Palmdale, California. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill
Corey interacts with fellow SARP interns on the flightline at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Researcher Center’s facility in Palmdale, California. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill

Why did you apply?

CW: The answer to this question lies in the evolution of my interests. For example, when I was a freshman, I was an English major. I applied the skills I learned with my time in the English department to the development of a YouTube channel, which I’ve since neglected. My sophomore year, I changed my major to nursing. While in this major, I applied myself to the rigorous study of science. Through this study, I produced a bit of character development and self-confidence. As science education molded me, I decided to study biology and education as a double major. I’m proud to report that I graduated this month. As a future science educator, I want to use my experience in the classroom to leverage curiosity and the understanding of complex systems. I also want to inspire the next generation to apply themselves towards their own challenging, individual goals like the one I achieved by working for NASA.

This isn’t the first time you’ve applied with the program. What inspired you to persevere and apply again?

CW: I have heard lots of teachers say something cliché like, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” I personally believe in this phrase, first because I am an optimist, and second because I think humans are powerful when they decide to act. However, I think that there is a responsibility that comes with believing this phrase. Personally, I think it would be unfair for me to tell my students to believe in themselves if I first did not believe in me. In a lot of ways, applying to SARP again is just myself modeling for students the act of taking responsibility for my beliefs. I also hope my second application to SARP teaches students an important lesson. Failure is feedback.

2018 Student Airborne Research Program Interns. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill
2018 Student Airborne Research Program Interns. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill

Why do you think internship opportunities like SARP are important for college students?

CW: I came to SARP from a small, liberal arts institution in East-Central Kentucky called Berea College. I am the first SARP alum from my school. The connections I made with this research experience will be extremely valuable to future generations. I intend to help someone else from Berea find the opportunity to work at NASA by connecting them to the network of scientists I have created. I also think opportunities like SARP are a great resume booster. This research experience under my belt will certainly prepare me better for graduate school.

What do you think undergraduate students can benefit from most by participating in opportunities like SARP?

CW: SARP is interesting because it puts you in an environment where you are forced to learn new things you’ve never thought about studying. As an educator, I am a big proponent of discovering new things. While at SARP, I was introduced to analytical tools and software like ENVI and MATLAB. I even had the opportunity to work with ArcGIS and ArcMap. This made me see a side of science that was utterly new and outside to anything I had ever contemplated.

Another thing that is beneficial about SARP is the way you get to be inspired by all kinds of interesting scientists and experiences. Some of my favorite moments were when I got to hold Sherwood Rowland’s Nobel Prize and see a real Mars lander being built at JPL for the 2020 mission.

Corey Walker sits in the cockpit jump seat aboard the NASA DC-8 during a science flight. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill
Corey Walker sits in the cockpit jump seat aboard the NASA DC-8 during a science flight. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill

Describe your research project and group.

CW: Something I noticed while flying in Southern California was all the tile or red-shingle roofs. This was certainly different from where I grew up and intrigued me. Because of my experiences being a volunteer firefighter with the city of Berea, I began to wonder how defensible red-shingle roofs were compared to wood shingle roofs if exposed to wildfire. This interest, along with help from mentors Alana Ayasse and Dr. Dar Roberts gave me the desire to develop a project where I mapped fire risk using remote sensing instruments. In my project, I successfully mapped materials like non-photosynthetic vegetation (NPV) or dead grass, green vegetation (GV) and soil and road in Goleta. I then compared maps I made to the location of the Holiday Fire, which started on July 11, 2018 and destroyed 28 structures.

How did you collect data for your research?

CW: I used data taken from NASA’s ER-2 16 days prior to the Holiday Fire. It was important for me to use data that was as close to the fire date as possible. I did this in order to accurately assess what kinds of materials were on the ground before the fire started.

The SARP Wildfires team collects field data in Central California. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill
The SARP Wildfires team collects field data in Central California. Credits: NASA / Megan Schill

What did you learn from the research?

CW: Not only did I show that the Holiday Fire occurred in a high fire risk area, but I also found interesting patterns. More specifically, my maps showed high fire risk in areas to the north and south of Goleta’s urban center where there is less road and more vegetation. My maps also show high fire risk in areas where property values are higher, which is a little alarming. For example, to the north, I found properties costing upwards of $700,000 surrounded with materials that could easily burn.

How do you plan to use this internship experience and your education going forward?

CW: Because of SARP, all the kids at the high school I teach at think I’m “cool.” This should be the objective right? It is interesting how working for a widely known name can inspire students and make them believe they could also do something “crazy” like working for NASA. Besides bringing my experiences into the classroom, I’ve decided I want to pursue a PhD in Earth Sciences and one day become a professor.

I’ve recently become interested in a hazards program at Oxford in the UK. I’ve certainly gained some self-confidence from getting to work for NASA, which has given me the desire to aim for a school like Oxford.

There is a professor named Dr. Tasmin Mather at Oxford who has used the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 to study volcanoes for the benefit of international communities. I find this work to be interesting as a scientist and volunteer firefighter. I like the way she uses science to inform the public of hazardous threats. I think it would be really cool to use my experience at SARP as a way to set me apart when I apply, so that I could one day work with someone like Dr. Mather.

Left to right: Chan Oh and Corey Walker. Chan was Corey’s roommate during college.
Left to right: Chan Oh and Corey Walker. Chan was Corey’s roommate during college.

Is there anyone else you’d like to recognize that has helped along your journey?

CW: I want to recognize and thank my family who have invested their time, resources and love into my success. I also had a number of teachers and mentors who went out of their way to push me out of my comfort zone. Lastly, I want to thank my wife Emily, who sacrificed time that could be spent together so that I could do science in California. Thank you all.

For more information on the Student Airborne Research Program and to apply visit: https://baeri.org/sarp-2019/

To read other blogs written by current and former SARP students visit: https://blogs.nasa.gov/earthexpeditions/?s=SARP

On the Iceberg Highway

The research ship Sanna of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

by Carol Rasmussen / NORTHWEST GREENLAND /

If you remember the movie Titanic, this looks like a terrible place for a cruise. But to a captain with a lifetime of experience navigating around Greenland, it was a safe passage. And to scientist Ian Fenty of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, it was a great place for research.

Ian is a co-investigator for NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign, a five-year project to measure the effects of ocean water on Greenland’s rapidly melting glaciers. In August, he was the sole OMG representative on a research cruise to glacier fronts in northwest Greenland. And where there are glaciers, there are icebergs.

Ian Fenty. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Through a professional connection with marine biologist Kristin Laidre of the University of Washington, Seattle, Ian had an opportunity to join the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources’ (GINR) week-long research cruise in northwestern Greenland. Malene Juul Simon of GINR’s Climate Division and Laidre planned the trip to deploy underwater acoustic instruments at glacier fronts — an important habitat for narwhals. These long-toothed Arctic whales navigate and hunt by making clicking sounds and listening to the echoes bouncing off nearby rocks or prey. The acoustic instruments pick up the narwhals’ sounds, documenting their activity at the glacier fronts.

The GINR instruments are attached to moorings—lines more than half a mile long, with a half-ton anchor at one end and the instruments and floats attached at intervals to the other end. Ian realized that adding OMG sensors of water temperature and salinity to the lines would produce a unique local dataset for OMG and benefit the narwhal research as well. The scientists agreed to collaborate, and Ian joined the team in Upernavik, Greenland, for an eight-day cruise.

Getting close to glacier fronts means encountering icebergs. Although Greenland’s bergs don’t match Antarctica’s for sheer size, the island’s fjords and shallow waters are littered with everything from modest lumps to tablelands that dwarf the 106-foot-long (32.3-meter-long) Sanna.

The view from Sanna’s bridge. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The captain was an expert pilot, with decades of experience in this kind of ship,” Ian said. “It was mesmerizing to watch them navigate through a field of icebergs to get to the instrument sites. His concentration was really impressive.” The crew usually work on fishing trawlers that are at sea for weeks, often in much worse weather than the researchers encountered.

Once at a proposed site, the researchers had to decide whether a mooring could survive there for two years. “There were some places that looked good on paper, but when you got there, you could see that they were on the iceberg highway,” Ian said –meaning  a current carrying icebergs from a glacier’s calving front.

An iceberg can not only rip the line off the anchor, it can drag the entire mooring out to sea, anchor and all. One mooring from Southeast Greenland washed up in Scotland, almost 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) away.

If the planned site looked dicey, the researchers would look for a nearby spot protected by an island or other feature that was still close to the calving front and deep enough to be attractive to narwhals. When they had agreed on a new site, the researchers programmed their instruments, and the crew tied them on the line.

Then they dropped the whole assembly, surface end first, along a course about a kilometer long. When the anchor dropped, it pulled the line into the proper vertical orientation.

The ocean environment may have been wild, but the ship was civilized. The six researchers and six crew were supplied with wifi, meals to suit both Greenlandic and European tastes, wet and dry labs, and comfortable bunkrooms.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Kristen and Malene for organizing the team,” Ian said. “It was a fantastic experience to work with so many different researchers in related but different areas. Pick any random pair, and they would be explaining something new to each other. The camaraderie was great. We definitely were collectively more than the sum of our parts.”

Juul Simon (center) and fellow researchers. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ian will return next summer to change batteries on his instruments. The moorings are equipped to help the researchers find them among next summer’s icebergs. “There’s a simple mechanism that sits just above the anchor and listens for a specific tone sequence,” Ian said. “When we come up in the ship, we play that song and boom! It lets go of the line, and the line comes up to the surface. The mooring has a satellite phone, and it sends its current coordinates to us by email.

“I’ll be getting email from my instrument. That’ll be a special day.”