How We Became CORAL Scientists

Scientists on a boat
Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) scientists Michelle Gierach and Eric Hochberg identify reef locations for study at Kaneohe Bay on Oahu, Hawaii. Credit: NASA/James Round

Where most coral reef studies take the close-up view of a diver, Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) will get the wide-angle view that comes with remote sensing instruments. CORAL scientists Eric Hochberg, Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, and Michelle Gierach, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, talked about how their backgrounds and training prepared them for this ground-breaking mission.

Eric Hochberg (center) and CORAL scientists preparing for boat operations at Kaneohe Bay on Oahu, Hawaii.

Eric Hochberg, CORAL principal investigator

Did you grow up near the ocean?

I was born and raised in Tampa, Florida. Every year my father took us down to the Florida Keys to catch lobsters — “to try to catch lobsters” would be a better phrase. The whole family would spend a week on a boat, and I just loved it. Because of these experiences I started diving off the Florida Keys when I was 13 years old.

When I got to college [Brown University], I thought maybe I’d be an engineer because I liked high school physics. Then I took college physics and said “No thank you.” In my junior year, I took a class in invertebrate biology and, from that moment, I wanted to be marine biologist.

After college I lived in Taipei, Taiwan, for three years. I kept applying to grad schools, and on my third try I applied to the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii. In the oceanography program my focus shifted away from “look at the pretty things” on a reef to trying to understanding reefs as an ecosystem.

When did you get involved with remote sensing?

I knew I wanted to do something with coral reefs in grad school, but I didn’t know exactly what it would be. My advisor, Marlin Atkinson, told me about a new technology program where they put a hyperspectral imager on an airplane and flew it over a reef. He thought it would fit me. It turned out to be a career-defining decision.

I’m very fortunate that I got in at the beginning of the program. No one else [in the department] was doing spectroscopy of coral reefs. My committee included renowned planetary scientists and biogeochemists, and I was able to learn from these diverse people, but I was there on my own. That was a challenge because collaborations help you get new ideas. At the same time, it was a benefit because I had to learn everything myself. That made me a lot more self-reliant than I would have been if I’d been in a big lab with 10 other grad students.

With remote sensing I see reefs as systems, not organisms. That’s a perspective that reef scientists often lack because of how they do their science. The science is very good, but it’s up close and personal. Remote sensing gives us a bird’s-eye view.

What do you hope to learn from the CORAL mission?

We’re worried about the future of coral reefs, and we have good reason to be. At the same time, I have seen reefs bounce back from major disturbances, and I have seen reefs that were not disturbed at all when we expected them to be. I have seen places where corals are growing and people say they shouldn’t even be there.

Reefs are vast and spread out over wide areas of ocean. There are a lot of fundamental questions that we can’t answer yet because we haven’t looked at enough reefs over a long enough time. CORAL will give us a better chance to answer some of those questions.

Scientist on a boat
Michelle Gierach scoping Kaneohe Bay on Oahu, Hawaii. Credit: NASA/James Round

Michelle Gierach, CORAL project scientist

Did you always want to be an oceanographer?

As a Floridian, I’ve always loved the water, but I actually started out as an aspiring TV meteorologist. Not just any meteorologist, but a Jim Cantore [from the Weather Channel] reporting live in the field during severe weather. Well, first I wanted to be Shamu’s trainer like most kids in Orlando, but by middle school I was determined to be a meteorologist.

I went to Florida State University for their renowned meteorology program. My freshman year I had an internship at [a TV station] in Orlando. It was a fantastic experience, but I realized TV was not for me. Rather, I wanted to be behind the scenes answering questions about atmospheric processes that would improve weather forecasts — a weather caped crusader of sorts.

My advisor at the time was a meteorologist and oceanographer, and he encouraged all his atmospheric science students to take oceanography classes and vice versa. The coupling between air and sea is so important that you really have to have an understanding of both. One particular class I took that got me thinking about oceanography as a career was satellite oceanography. It was intriguing to me that there was a suite of satellites informing us about different components of the Earth system. You could say this is where it all started. My master’s thesis used satellite observations to develop a technique to detect and monitor the early stages of tropical cyclone formation, and my Ph.D. dissertation [at the University of South Carolina’s Marine Science Program] used satellite observations and models to assess the ocean response to tropical cyclones.  I may not have known it at the time, but I was already destined for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

What is it you like so much about satellite observations?

I love the synergies, taking multiple observations to say something about a particular topic. If you look at an eddy, for example, from the Jason series [of satellites] you see it as elevated or depressed sea surface height. From a different satellite you get a chlorophyll-a response in its core or around its periphery, and from a third one you get a sea surface temperature response. Combining these observations tells a story about the transport of heat and carbon by eddies.

One of the great things about NASA is that all data are publicly available. This increases data visibility and usability to a larger community, increasing the opportunity for new measurements and science to be discovered, ultimately improving our understanding of the Earth system.

You’ve done quite a few field campaigns. How do you like field work?

When I got out of grad school I had only done remote sensing. I love it, but you always need some kind of validation to make sure that what you’re seeing is correct. For my postdoc [at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science] I wanted to witness firsthand what it takes to get those observations, as well as earn the right to call myself a seagoing oceanographer.

[Gierach’s first field experience was the 2010 Impact of Typhoons on the Ocean in the Pacific campaign off Taiwan. She helped place two buoys in the path of typhoons.]

They did withstand the typhoons and took observations. If you were to look at a global map with just those two [data points], they look like nothing, but seeing the work it took to get those two … it definitely took a village. I liked going to sea and was glad I had done it, but I realized that’s not the life for me. Remote sensing is my wheelhouse. I’m going to stick with it.

What are you most looking forward to in CORAL?

Seeing all the moving parts come together. There’s beauty to that. Also, seeing if the results confirm the held assumptions that coral reef cover decreases with increasing ocean temperature and increasing marine pollution, or if they tell us something entirely different.

The next steps beyond CORAL are also exciting. Is there additional information that can be extracted from the remote sensing data to further understand reef ecosystems and their environment? Can we take the next leap toward a dedicated, spaceborne mission to provide monitoring of coral reef ecosystems with greater spatial and temporal coverage? The CORAL mission, and the steps to follow, will take us to new heights in understanding.

Looking for a Few Cloudless Hours

Leafy valley
Kaaawa Valley, near Kaneohe Bay on the island of Oahu, on an overcast day. Credit: NASA/James Round

by Carol Rasmussen / OAHU, HAWAII /

Most offices in Honolulu were closed Friday, June 10, for King Kamehameha Day, but the National Weather Service (NWS) office was open. CORAL project scientist Michelle Gierach and project manager Bill Mateer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory dropped in to learn about Hawaii weather from the pros.

That’s not to say that Gierach and Mateer are amateurs. Gierach has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in meteorology, and as JPL’s airborne science program manager, Mateer has an advanced degree and a good working knowledge of weather maps and forecasts. But Hawaii’s tropical climate and mountain terrain offer special weather challenges. “We’re just coming into the region, and they have the expert knowledge,” Gierach said.

Scientists talking
After giving a weather map briefing, NWS Senior Meteorologist Jon Jelsema discussed Hawaii weather with Michelle Gierach. Credit: NASA/James Round

Weatherwise, the biggest concern for CORAL’s airborne instrument is clouds. On a sunny day, the Portable Remote Imaging SpectroMeter (PRISM) can see the light reflecting off the bottom of the ocean to discriminate benthic cover — the ratio of coral, sand and algae. But the light from the seafloor is only about 1 percent of the total reflected light that reaches the instrument from the atmosphere and ocean below. If cloudy skies obscure or even dim that signal, PRISM can’t produce good measurements of coral reefs.

At the Honolulu NWS office, Science and Operations Officer Robert Ballard briefed the JPL scientists on what cloud cover they’re likely to see both this week and when the campaign returns in February 2017 to survey reefs in the entire island chain.

“Climatologically, you’re fighting a battle here,” Ballard said. “But you only need clear skies for an hour or two, and there are weather patterns where you get that.” The most common such pattern is light winds with a ridge of atmospheric high pressure over or near the islands. Offshore winds at night blow clouds away from the island so that mornings are generally cloudless. This pattern is more common during winter because the trade winds don’t blow as persistently as they do the rest of the year, so even though winter is rainier, it also has more clear skies.

National Weather Service Science and Operations Officer Robert Ballard.
National Weather Service Science and Operations Officer Robert Ballard. Credit: NASA/James Round

This weather pattern, Ballard noted, can usually be spotted a few days before it reaches the islands. “Forecasting in the tropics can be tricky, but this is a large-scale pattern, which lowers the level of difficulty for us.” Small-scale events like showers are still hard to predict because even the state-of-the-art weather forecasting models that NWS uses “don’t see the island super well. Knowing the climatology is huge.”

So prospects for February are good, but the prospects for the coming weeks are not as promising, Ballard said. “The trade winds are going on for at least the next 10 days. If you get [a long period of] clear skies in the trades, I want a picture of it.”

Fortunately, science flights during the Hawaii operational readiness test will not be as demanding in terms of results as the flights during the actual field campaign, Mateer said. From his perspective as project manager, “Success for the operations readiness test is to make sure we can execute all the steps of a mission day — the airplane’s ready to go, we can communicate with the optics team in the boat, we can get the data off the plane and onto the server, and we can confirm that the quality of the data meets the requirements. It’s important to get the whole data collection machine, both remote and in situ instruments, working as one unit. Then we’ll have confidence we’re ready for full science operations when we get to Australia.”

In an Airborne Campaign, Why Boats?


Science instrument
As boat operations begin on Tuesday, June 7, Brandon Russell (University of Connecticut) drops the inherent optical properties “cage” into the water. Instruments in the cage measure how light is absorbed and scattered in the water. The measurements will help scientists “see through” the water and isolate the light reflected from the bottom. Credit: HIMB/Daniel Schar

by Carol Rasmussen / OAHU, HAWAII /

What makes the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) a game-changer is its airborne instrument. NASA’s Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) will fly at 28,000 feet, viewing entire coral reef ecosystems on a scale that no boat-based campaign can match. Yet CORAL is using three research boats and scuba divers in the same areas that PRISM will be flying above. With a state-of-the-art remote sensing instrument in action, what’s the point of getting wet?

“We have to go in the water to make sure the airborne data are accurate,” said CORAL principal investigator Eric Hochberg, of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. The boat measurements are like independent witnesses in a trial. If they agree with the PRISM data, it confirms that the PRISM measurements are valid—which is why this step is called validation.

Scientist on a boat
Eric Hochberg talks about the next location for collecting data with Russell and Garcia.

As CORAL’s operational readiness test—its final dress rehearsal—continues on Oahu, the first boat team has been testing optical instruments in the waters of Kaneohe Bay. Researchers Brandon Russell, from the University of Connecticut, and Rodrigo Garcia, from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, are measuring light at the ocean surface and optical properties of the water around the 17-square-mile bay. A second boat team arrived Thursday to start assembling and testing equipment to measure reef metabolism, specifically  photosynthesis and calcification. A third boat team arriving Saturday will measure the composition (coral, algae, and sand) of the seafloor, scientifically known as benthic cover. The third team will also measure optical properties (reflectance) of the seafloor.

Hochberg noted that validation is especially important in CORAL because its science is ultimately based on the large-scale airborne measurements, and it will be collecting data in many locations where there are no supporting data available. “The airplane will be flying over remote regions where we can’t go diving and we don’t know what’s there,” he said. “Every pixel in the PRISM data will have to be identified. Some will have more coral or less coral, some will be deeper, some will be shallower. We need validation data to give us confidence in all these different conditions.”



CORAL Mission Starts Work in Hawaii

Eric Hochberg, principal investigator of the CORAL mission, steers the research boat in Kaneohe Bay. Credit: NASA/James Round

by  Carol Rasmussen / OAHU, HAWAII /

Even in dark glasses, Eric Hochberg is squinting a little in brilliant sunlight glinting from a green ocean. He is driving a research boat across Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, on June 7, the first day of the operations readiness test for NASA’s Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) mission. Hochberg, a scientist at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and CORAL’s principal investigator, is overseeing tests of two instruments that measure water’s optical properties.

Kaneohe Bay is patchy in the sunlight, brighter and darker spots showing where the ocean floor is mostly sand and where there’s a coral reef. Warm, sheltered and spectacularly beautiful, the bay is a magnet for both locals and tourists. About a dozen tourist boats are moored on a large sandbar. Hochberg and his team appear to be the only people who are working anywhere in the vicinity, but in fact, a small island in the bay houses the researchers of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), CORAL’s base during this Hawaii test.

Moku O Lo'e, also known as Coconut Island, is CORAL's base of operations in Hawaii. Credit: NASA/James Round
Moku O Loe, also known as Coconut Island, is CORAL’s base of operations in Hawaii. Credit: NASA/James Round

Hochberg has been working for years to bring a program like CORAL into existence. “The coral reef data we have were mostly gathered by scuba divers with measuring tapes, so they’re local, inconsistent and patchy,” he says. “CORAL will give us the first large, uniform dataset on the condition of coral reefs across key regions of the Pacific. We have good reason to be concerned about the future of reefs, but there are a lot of fundamental things we just don’t understand about them. With the CORAL dataset, we can begin to better understand how reefs interact with their environments.”

What makes this possible is a new airborne instrument called PRISM, the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer. Michelle Gierach of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the CORAL project scientist. She says, “PRISM is the heart and soul of the CORAL mission. It came into being to address the challenge of coastal observations.”

Michelle Gierach, CORAL’s project scientist, at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Oahu. Credit: NASA/James Round

The abundant light on the water that makes the scientists squint creates similar problems for remote sensors trying to focus on dimly visible objects underwater. PRISM was designed specifically to handle these tough light conditions. From reflected light on the ocean, it can extract the spectral signatures of coral, sand and algae — important indicators of the condition of a reef. The PRISM instrument is able to survey entire reef ecosystems in about the same time it would take boat-based researchers to survey a few square yards or meters.

In Kaneohe Bay, the scientists pull their instrument out of the water one final time, and Hochberg points the boat back toward HIMB’s boat docks. Their agenda for today was to check the performance of the optical instruments, and they’ve collected enough data for a first test. Two other boat teams will also be checking out their instruments in the next few days. When the aircraft and PRISM arrive from the mainland, the boat teams and aircraft will make more or less simultaneous measurements on and over the bay. While that’s going on, the workers on Kaneohe Bay might actually outnumber the tourists.

Porpoises, Bowties and Speed Changers, Oh My!

by Denise Lineberry / ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND

NASA’s C-130 takes off from St. John’s International Airport with about a dozen researchers and scientific instruments on board. The aircraft quickly rises above a blanket of clouds that, from above, look like fluffy, white sand dunes in the sky. The rising sun glares into the right side of the cockpit as the aircraft reaches 16,000 feet.

c130flight 2A low ceiling of broken clouds offers opportunities for researchers to sample clouds during part of the flight and clear air during other parts of the flight. Credit: NASA/Michael Starobin

This is the first official 2016 science flight for NAAMES, or the North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study,  a five-year investigation of  key processes that control ocean ecosystem function, their influences on atmospheric aerosols and clouds, and their influence on climate.

Tricky aircraft maneuvers are as much a part of the vocabulary of NAAMES airborne scientists as atmospheric particles. “Tail wags,” “porpoises,” “bowties” and “speed changers,” to name just a few. Each maneuver allows scientists to gather data at different altitudes and cover as much of the area as possible, all while confirming the accuracy of scientific measurements.

At the nose of the C-130 are five small holes, each tied to a pressure transducer that measures the wind. By doing certain maneuvers, the NAAMES team is able to calibrate and validate vertical wind measurements that are combined with moisture measurements to study particles in and around clouds.

“Some of the more queasy scientists don’t like these calibration maneuvers, but they are key to calibrating the aircraft winds measurements that need to be made very precisely,” said Rich Moore, NAAMES deputy project scientist. “High-frequency wind data provide a direct measurement of the updrafts that drive cloud formation, as well as providing some information about the net (i.e., up-down) flux of atmospheric constituents like particles and gases.”

A “speed variation” maneuver involves flying the minimum to maximum air speeds of the C-130 for that altitude at about three or four evenly spaced steps.

“During the speed maneuvers at each step, the airspeed is held constant, which should in turn hold the pitch angle of the aircraft nearly constant,” said Lee Thornhill, NAAMES researcher.

“Tail wags” exercise the horizontal pressure transducers as the aircraft moves from side to side in a crabbing motion. A ‘porpoise’ is a maneuver where the aircraft moves up and down, exercising the vertical pair of pressure transducers on the nose.

At lower-levels, the aircraft literally dives through clouds during porpoise maneuvers that map out the air below, within, and above the cloud. Mapping out the clouds from a series of stacked, horizontal levels at longer distances and time frames is known as a “cloud module.” This allows the scientists to establish statistics used to model clouds.

The flight strategy to meet NAAMES science objectives on the C-130 includes many maneuvers and waypoints, or destinations.

The first waypoint in this case was a high-altitude overflight of a previous practice station for the research vessel Atlantis, which has been in the North Atlantic since May 11. A practice site at sea allows the ship team to test instruments before heading to the research sites in the North Atlantic. It also serves as the first opportunity to compare and complement ship and aircraft measurements that will help to better define the relationship between the ocean ecosystem, the atmosphere and climate.

AtlantisFlyover 2Hundreds of miles off shore, the R/V Atlantis looks up while the crew of the C-130 looks down. The airborne and shipborne teams are studying interactions between the ocean and atmosphere to gain a better understanding of their complex chemical, biological and physical relationships. Credit: NASA/Michael Starobin

Soon after, NAAMES research scientist John Hair notifies the aircraft team that they are approaching the Atlantis, their next waypoint. The ship appears as a speck above the water and progresses into a large, nearby ship steadily gliding along the wide, open waters. With the few windows of the aircraft crammed with researchers wanting to see the rest of their team at sea, Atlantis passes behind sight under the aircraft’s wing. This would happen once more as the aircraft does a complete Z-pattern, or “bowtie,” directly over the Atlantis for about 4 hours of the 10-hour science flight.

“The goal of a bowtie is to map out the ocean eddy features and variability around the ship in the fewest passes possible,” Moore said. “Doing this maximizes the time available for other maneuvers.”

To reach the final waypoints of the flight, the aircraft shifts patterns and spirals around to match up with the measurement track from NASA’s CALIPSO satellite. Changes in clouds and atmospheric aerosols, such as dust, sea salt, ash and soot, influence Earth’s weather, climate and air quality.  For 10 years, the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) mission has orbited Earth taking more than 5.7 billion lidar measurements that probe the vertical “curtain” structure and properties of thin clouds and aerosols.

C130_airport 2As soon as NASA’s C-130 arrives back at St. John’s International Airport, a maintenance crew works on the aircraft to get it ready for the next science flight. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry

“From 20,000 to 30,000 feet in the air, the aircraft corrects down-looking measurements,” Moore said. “And from space, satellites play an integral role in measuring what’s over the plane.”

In between the North Atlantic that teems with blooming phytoplankton and the dark, realm of the A-Train satellite constellation, a single C-130 science flight for NAAMES covers vast amounts of biogenic atmospheric territory. For the NAAMES aircraft team, this was only the beginning. Many more science flights will continue through the first week in June – maneuvers and waypoints included.


Canadian Fire Plume Detected During NAAMES Transit Flight

Island from the air
NASA’s C-130 descends down in a spiral over Sable Island during a May 13 transit flight. Credit: Denise Lineberry / NASA

by Denise Lineberry / ST. JOHN’S, CANADA /

Sometimes, researchers don’t find data as much as the data finds them. Such was the case for the transit flight on May 13 from NASA’s Langley Research Center to St. John’s International Airport to support NAAMES, or the North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study.

The mission focuses on collecting biogenic or marine aerosols — far away from land and away from human influence. After all, about 71 percent of Earth’s surface is water, and the oceans hold about 96 percent of it. It can be easy for the everyday person on land to overlook the massive influence that the ocean has on the atmosphere and climate. But by air and sea, NAAMES researchers work tirelessly in the field to study this connection.

Flying over narrow, crescent-shaped Sable Island in Nova Scotia, some 185 miles southeast of Halifax and home to only a handful of residents, is a great place to collect biogenic data and validate aerosol instruments from a ground site on the island.

NAAMES researchers flying over during the transit flight on NASA’s C-130 at 3,200 feet didn’t expect to fly through an extensive smoke plume. But that’s exactly what happened. 

Along the aircraft’s track, the plume appeared as a haze, but the scientific instruments on board the aircraft would get a much better view. The instruments, along with measurements from a ground station on Sable Island, measured the vertical extent and composition of the plume. To do this, they ascended and descended in spirals over the island to fully capture the plume’s variations.

Onboard, the LARGE, or Langley Aerosols Research Group Experiment, in situ suite captured aerosol features in the marine boundary layer and upper troposphere. Langley’s HSRL, or High Spectral Resolution Lidar, also captured data on smoke features in the marine boundary layer of the atmosphere, widely influenced by the ocean.

The High Spectral Resolution Lidar (HSRL) lidar captures smoke features in the atmosphere and ecosystem features in the ocean. Credit: NASA
The High Spectral Resolution Lidar (HSRL) lidar captures smoke features in the atmosphere and ecosystem features in the ocean. Credit: NASA

The curiosity that makes a scientist, well, a scientist, kicked into full gear. They wanted to know where the plume came from.

They knew of wildfires, which began on May 3 just southwest of Fort McMurray and proceeded to sweep through the community, resulting in Alberta’s largest wildfire evacuation. But to see from where else the plume could have originated, they looked at a map from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.

From there, they were able to create a forward trajectory of fires using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hybrid Single Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory (HYSPLIT) Model, and determined that the plume over Sable Island came from fires near Winnipeg. Earlier this month, two massive forest fires broke out on the Manitoba-Ontario border covering about 75,000 hectares at its peak, resulting in the evacuation of two provinces. Since then, it’s been 60 percent contained. The plume from the fires traveled about 1,700 miles to Sable Island in Nova Scotia, where it was detected by NASA’s C-130.

“It is well known that biomass plumes from large forest fires are transported a great distance across the globe,” said NAAMES research scientist John Hair. “It will be interesting on this flight to connect the aircraft measurements made in the atmosphere and the ocean, and relate them to what the satellite saw on the same day.”

The NAAMES team will further study the plume data gathered from the transit flight with help from student researchers making corroborative data from the Sable Island Ground Station, the only permanently staffed facility on the island.

Student researchers make corroborative measurements at a ground station on Sable Island for NAAMES. Credit: Mark Gibson

The team was pleased that the plume’s trajectory does not reach as far out as their NAAMES mission study area, approximately 500 nautical miles off the coast of the North Atlantic, where marine aerosols and the research vessel Atlantis roam free. That’s where they were headed for their first official science flight on May 18.

From plumes rising from massive fires to aerosols rising from microscopic marine life – everything on the land, in the ocean and in the atmosphere plays a part in Earth’s interconnected system. And some very curious NAAMES researchers are on the case to understand a massive part of that system better than they ever have before.

Sunny with a Chance of Icebergs

While in the field, plans can change as quickly as the weather. Meteorologists for the North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) constantly provide forecasts for the aircraft and ship teams who, weather permitting, will rendezvous several times over the next few weeks in the North Atlantic — home to the world’s largest phytoplankton bloom. Plankton ecosystems profoundly affect climate and life on Earth.

NAAMES meteorologists Amy Jo Scarino and Michael Shook tend to work behind the scenes, but they are an integral part of making the mission successful. Amy Jo, a Penn State graduate with a B.S. in meteorology, works at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Michael graduated from the University of Kansas with a B.S. in atmospheric science and began working at NASA Langley as a programmer/analyst with the atmospheric composition branch.

Amy Jo Scarino. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

Amy, what is your involvement with the NAAMES mission?

AJS: I am one of the project meteorologists and helping out with flight planning.  I am also a member of the High Spectral Resolution Lidar [HSRL] team – one of the instruments on the C-130 – and will assist with processing the data.

How did you end up in meteorology?

AJS: Growing up in Michigan, I always enjoyed the weather, especially watching thunderstorms from the front porch and also lake effect snowstorms.  In high school, I made contact with the local meteorologist in Grand Rapids, Michigan–George Lessens.  He became my mentor, and I learned the ropes of forecasting during an internship at WZZM-13.  George went to Penn State for meteorology, so that is where I decided I wanted to also go for college.  At Penn State I participated in the Campus Weather Service, providing forecasts for The Daily Collegian and select Pennsylvania radio stations.

What is a typical day like to forecast for NAAMES?

AJS: Every day Michael Shook or I prepare the forecast by looking at current observations and then start looking at the latest model runs.  For NAAMES, one of the main drivers is forecasting clouds and the synoptic pattern, but also forecasting sea state [ocean wind and waves] for the R/V Atlantis. We then have a daily forecast briefing with recommendations on the outlook for potential science flight days. On the day of a planned science flight, I am up a couple hours before the C-130 would take off for the go/no-go meeting.  At that time, we are checking current observations and confirming whether the previous day’s forecast still stands or not.  Take a breath and repeat; during a field campaign, the meteorologists don’t take a day off.

How does your work on NAAMES compare to other projects you’ve worked on?

AJS: Other projects I have worked on have been related to applications of the HSRL data from other field campaigns, such as deriving mixed layer heights from aerosol backscatter profiles and relating that to air quality studies. For the first NAAMES mission, I provided the weather forecasts from home base at NASA Langley.  This time I am out in the field and working right with the project scientists, flight planners and the instrument scientists.

Being out in the field, are you going to do anything exciting in St. John’s?

AJS: Gearing up for the second NAAMES mission, I was watching the iceberg field that is in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.  I am hoping that while I am in the field I can view an iceberg from Signal Hill or other areas along the coast.

Michael Shook. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

Michael, how did you end up in meteorology?

MS: I’ve always loved the weather for as long as I can remember.  Growing up, I wanted to be an operational forecaster for the National Weather Service.  To work toward that goal, I got my bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science from the University of Kansas.  Through my courses and after graduation, I learned that atmospheric science includes much more than operational forecasting, which is how I ended up as a contractor for NASA working with the Langley Aerosol Research Group and the airborne science data management team.  With my meteorology background, NAAMES asked if I could help them with flight forecasting as well.

What does a typical day in NAAMES look like for the forecasters?

MS: On a day that we don’t have a flight scheduled, we come in around 7:30am to work with the flight planners and project scientist to adjust our plans to account for changes in the weather forecast.  That way, changes in the flight plans can be communicated with air traffic control as soon as possible.  Then we begin reviewing observations and atmospheric and ocean model forecasts to prepare for a 2 pm briefing to the science team, looking for the right conditions to fly over the coming week.  On flight days, we come in as early as 4am to help make the final go/no-go call before a flight, and then help support the scientists in the air by feeding them updated weather information from the ground.

What other work do you do on NAAMES?

MS: In addition to forecasting, I also process data from some of the Langley Aerosol Research Group instruments and create standardized data files that get uploaded to the NAAMES data archive.  In addition, I create combined files—we call them “the merge”—from all the individual instrument groups’ files and the aircraft’s position information.  In a lot of cases, looking at data from a single instrument isn’t as helpful as getting a comprehensive look from all the instruments, so these files are invaluable as the scientists start analyzing the data we’ve collected.

What are you going to do in St. John’s when you’re not working on NAAMES?

MS: If we get some down time, I want to visit Cape Spear, which is the easternmost point in North America.  I’d also love to see an iceberg and try curling for the first time.

How does your work on NAAMES compare to the other projects you’ve worked on?

MS: I’ve traveled to a few field campaigns before to do data processing and merging, but this is the first time I’ve traveled to do forecasting.  On the first deployment of NAAMES, the forecasting team stayed in Virginia, which made it difficult to coordinate schedules and ask and answer the quick little questions that invariably come up.  This is also my first time supporting a field campaign in a different country!

Flying Scientific Detours Is All Part of the Plan

The NAAMES team prepares for the transit flight to St. John’s International Airport, where it will reside between science flights in which the C-130 rendezvous with the R/V Atlantis in the North Atlantic. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry
The NAAMES team prepares for the transit flight to St. John’s International Airport, where it will reside between science flights in which the C-130 will rendezvous with the R/V Atlantis in the North Atlantic. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry

by Denise Lineberry / ST. JOHN’S, CANADA /

On Friday, May 13, Shane Tungate, the aircraft loadmaster, provides a safety briefing to some of the NAAMES, or North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study, team members at NASA’s Langley Research Center, who are preparing to board the C-130 for St. John’s International Airport, Newfoundland. Before the team even gets the chance to get seated, someone hollers out, “Power down!”

An invertor replacement is needed for the engine. At NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, someone hops in a golf cart to hunt down a replacement from a non-flyable “parts plane.”  The part is found and the B-200 flies it some 75 miles from Wallops to Langley. The part is replaced, and the C-130 flight is three hours behind scheduled takeoff, but preparing for flight.

NAAMES is in the field this month on the second of four deployments. About half the carbon dioxide emitted into Earth’s atmosphere each year ends up in the ocean, and plankton absorbs a lot of it. NAAMES studies the world’s largest plankton bloom and how it gives rise to small organic particles that leave the ocean and end up in the atmosphere, ultimately influencing clouds and climate. This month coincides with a critical phase of the bloom. Researchers will take measurements by sea and by air from St. John’s.

Not much is conventional about a ride on NASA’s C-130. The seat belt buckle looks a little like it’s from medieval times. Some walls are covered in diamond-stitched liner and many stretches and bundles of cords line the sides and top of the aircraft’s interior. Window seats are not an option since the only windows are on the aircraft’s three doors and in the cockpit.

Seat belt
The seatbelt buckle on the C-130H. It doesn’t have to be pretty; it just has to work. Credit: NASA/Denise Lineberry

When in flight, the cockpit’s room temperature is about 70 degrees F. The middle of the plane, where a majority of the team is seated, is about 60 degrees F. The back of the plane, occupied by items such as water and luggage, is about 30 degrees F.

The takeoff is smooth and the team’s screens immediately begin to light up with colorful data plots from instruments on board the C-130, such as the GCAS (GeoCAPE Airborne Simulator) and AMS (Aerosol Mass Spectrometer).

It is a nonstop transit flight with the end goal of getting the team to St. John’s to start planning science flights in coordination with the R/V Atlantis. However, the scientists are so anxious to get data that they set up some scientific detours along the way.

Remote sensing instruments on board the C-130 gather color gradient measurements, from the clear water in the Albemarle Sound to the most productive ocean water in the world in the North Atlantic.

“You can see a distinct change in ocean,” one team member says over the aircraft’s communication system as we pass from one gradient to another.

The C-130 also spirals down over Sable Island, just southwest of Newfoundland.  From the cockpit, the surface water goes from flat to angled, flat to angled, as the pilots circle the aircraft lower. The island comes in and out of sight, along with the sun and a pod of seals hopping in and out of the water. It’s such a beautiful view and a surprisingly pleasant circling descent that it’s almost easy to forget this maneuver has a scientific purpose — Sable Island is home to a ground observation site that double-checks the accuracy of aerosol measurements being made on the C-130.

“This looks like an ideal spot,” says NASA Langley scientist Ewan Crosbie over the C-130 telecom.

“Roger that,” says NAAMES Deputy Project Scientist Rich Moore.

“Beginning descent,” the pilot communicates.

They are descending into a “box,” or identified and secured airspace, that was specifically mapped out to test a new instrument that samples cloud water from low-level, warm clouds.

From the ground site on Sable Island, the C-130 can be seen passing over in the upper distance. Credit: NASA/Codey Barnett
From the ground site on Sable Island, the C-130 can be seen passing over in the distance. Credit: NASA/Codey Barnett

The grand finale of the transit flight includes an overpass of the R/V Atlantis in the North Atlantic. The comparison and combination of the shipborne and airborne measurements are the bread and butter of the NAAMES mission. And this initial flight over the Atlantis marks the first of several that will take place over the next few weeks to better understand the ocean-atmosphere interaction.

In the moments before landing, Moore calls out to the instrument teams for checks before powering down the aircraft. All instruments gathered data and the team is delighted to have such clear conditions to measure — thanks to the NAAMES meteorologists who forecasted that leaving a day earlier than planned would be best for the instrument teams.

Weekend plans in St. John’s for NAAMES involve aircraft and instrument maintenance, weather forecasting and flight planning for the first official science flight, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, May 17.

Atlantis Heads Out to the Bloomin’ Ocean

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / Woods Hole, MA /

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To truly understand the whole, however, we need to analyze its parts. That is the mission of the ambitious North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES), whose scientists left port Wednesday with the outgoing tide on the research vessel Atlantis.

R/V Atlantis steaming away from Woods Hole on Wednesday, headed to the North Atlantic. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA
R/V Atlantis steaming away from Woods Hole on Wednesday, headed to the North Atlantic. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

During this second of four cruises, the ship is in a rush against time and mother nature to reach its northernmost station before the cyclical, massive spring bloom of phytoplankton spreads across the North Atlantic. This is a time when phytoplankton, microscopic algae at the base of the marine food web, grow faster than other things can eat them. The bloom occurs as sunlight increases and nutrients are plentiful at the water’s wind-mixed surface layer. Once their predators catch up, the phytoplankton decline.

The North Atlantic bloom normally peaks in May. Toby Westberry, of Oregon State University, has been watching satellite imagery carefully for the past few weeks and is worried that the bloom is early and already progressing northward. Westberry and NAAMES principal investigator Mike Behrenfeld, also of Oregon State, worked with the ship’s captain and chief engineer to put additional engines on the Atlantis. They hope to cut the week-long transit time to their first station by a few days so that they don’t miss this short window in the phytoplankton’s annual cycle.

Green seas in this satellite image -- captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite on Wednesday (May 11, 2016) -- indicate that phytoplankton are starting to bloom in the North Atlantic north of 50 degrees North. The small globe in the lower right corner shows the scale of this image as the darker blue box. The approximate track of the Atlantis is sketched as a dashed red line. Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA
Green seas in this satellite image — captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite on Wednesday (May 11, 2016) — indicate that phytoplankton are starting to bloom in the North Atlantic north of 50 degrees North. The small globe in the lower right corner shows the scale of this image as the darker blue box. The approximate track of the Atlantis is sketched as a dashed red line. Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA

NAAMES’ interdisciplinary, multi-institutional science team will take a comprehensive suite of measurements of biological and physical properties in the ocean and also measure the atmosphere for particles and trace gases associated with the spring bloom. This floating laboratory has more sophisticated science equipment per square foot than I have ever seen before. Not to mention an abundance of talented minds to collect and analyze the data through multiple methods from many perspectives.

One of the key goals of the mission is to observe the structure of the phytoplankton community in these ocean blooms to better understand the role of sunlight, predation, and disease by viruses and bacteria. There is a lot of diversity among microscopic phytoplankton and – believe it or not – there is a chance we may be able to distinguish kinds of phytoplankton (their different taxonomic levels) from satellites one day. Data collected by this cruise will assist with that effort.

Cleo Davie-Martin measures volatile organic compounds (gases) the phytoplankton release. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
Cleo Davie-Martin, Oregon State University, measures volatile organic compounds (gases) that phytoplankton release. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

The other key goal is to determine how plankton interact with the air by releasing small particles and trace gases that can lead to cloud formation. The role of airborne particles in trapping or reflecting sunlight and through cloud formation is one of the biggest open questions in understanding Earth’s climate.

The interdisciplinary ocean and atmospheric science questions of NAAMES parallel those of the upcoming Plankton, Aerosols, Clouds and ocean Ecosystems (PACE) satellite mission to study Earth as a system using an airborne hyperspectral ocean color instrument and polarimeter. Ship-based and airborne measurements will provide valuable information for scientists to develop and test analytical tools to use with future satellite data from PACE.

Jason Graff (left) measures the carbon in phytoplankton through an instrument that bombards sea-water samples with laser and sorts out phytoplankton by their optical response. Cleo Davie-Martin (right) measures volatile organic compounds (gases) the phytoplankton release. Both scientists are from Oregon State University. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
Jason Graff, Oregon State University, measures the carbon in phytoplankton through an instrument that bombards sea-water samples with laser and sorts out phytoplankton by their optical response. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

And that will bring the project full-circle. The NAAMES field campaign was conceived through analysis of the first continuous ocean color satellite record that Behrenfeld published in 2010. In that study, he noticed the annual phytoplankton spring bloom seemed to start much earlier than previously assumed. Subsequent field campaigns and modeling studies confirmed the basic idea but led to more questions. NAAMES hopes to answer these through its four field campaigns during different phases of the annual life cycle of phytoplankton. Better understanding these important Earth processes will lead to better modeling, that will enable us to more accurately predict and prepare for the future.

Because going to sea is such a precious opportunity, this cruise is packed to the gills with sophisticated sensors and scientists who will study the spring bloom from multiple angles. For the next three weeks, the R/V Atlantis will measure the living ocean along with a C-130 airplane that will fly over the ship collecting measurements of the sea and sky.

When asked about their favorite aspect of going to sea, the food and the camaraderie of shipmates are at the top of most scientists’ lists. Craig Carlson of the University of California at Santa Barbara said, “You’re living in the midst of focused science 24/7. The internet is slow and there are minimal distractions.”

Liz Harvey of the University of Georgia at Skidaway added, “With 16-20 hour days, getting enough sleep is a challenge.”

“Sleep is precious and you build your day around food,” said Graff in agreement. “You’re living on coffee, great food and adrenaline.”

If you’ve spent much time near the ocean, you understand how it can pull you in. And if you haven’t, well, you should.

Life ring and beacon on the R/V Atlantis in case someone falls overboard. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA
Life ring and beacon on the R/V Atlantis in case someone falls overboard. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA


Getting Social on Deck with NAAMES

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / WOODS HOLE, MASS. /

Humans are social creatures. So what better way to connect them to the complex mission of an air and sea campaign to the North Atlantic that studies plankton, aerosols and cloud formation than through a NASA Social event?

On May 10, a dedicated group of 20 bloggers and social media users from around the country travelled to the sea-side village of Woods Hole, Massachusetts – home of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) – to hear about the multi-faceted North Atlantic Aerosol and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) from many of the people involved in its science and to tour the research vessel Atlantis.

NAAMESSocial2_Behrenfeld (1)

NAAMES Chief Scientist Mike Behrenfeld explains the importance of plankton for life on Earth. Credit: NASA/Michael Starobin

Michael Phillips, a meteorologist who travelled from New Jersey, is part of the Weather Boy team that uses Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Pinterest. His team of 15 originally used social media to connect with their TV and radio listeners, but now find that more and more of their half-a-million followers only connect to them through on-line content. Phillips covered the NASA Social because “Earth science and weather content resonates most with our audience.”


NASA Social attendees were busy reporting to their followers during the NAAMES overview and question and answer session. Credit: NASA/Michael Starobin

Not all attendees hold day jobs related to Earth science or weather. A pastor from a Baptist church, a legal secretary, medical professionals, photographers and outdoor enthusiasts were among the group. The common theme that bound them was an appreciation for Earth science and innovative technology to make new discoveries. And a sense of adventure. Who else would take time off of work to travel to a previously unheard-of Cape Cod village during the off-season, some with family in tow, for an event like this?

NAAMESSocial3_listeningRapt attention during the NAAMES overview by NASA Social attendees who travelled from all over the country to attend the event. Credit: NASA/Michael Starobin

Attendees enthusiastically tweeted, posted and live-streamed through Periscope and Facebook throughout the day, especially while on the Atlantis. Phillips brought along a cut-out of their Weather Boy cartoon character and tweeted pictures of him around the ship to help audiences connect to the event.

The group toured spaces and equipment used during NAAMES, plus the bridge and living spaces — including the all-important galley. Several scientists emphasized how they build their days at sea around great food and meal times.


Oceanographer Peter Gaube describes the conductivity, temperature, depth (CTD) sensor used to measure sea water density surfaces ‘like a layer cake’ from the ocean surface down to 1000m deep. Credit: NASA/Stephanie Schollaert Uz

The Social began with an overview of NASA’s Earth science program and the five-year field campaign in the North Atlantic by program manager Paula Bontempi of NASA’s Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry program.

Rich Moore, NAAMES Deputy Project Scientist, described the campaign from the perspective of the C-130 aircraft overflights and the measurements they take of particles in the atmosphere that can form clouds. “Without particles in the atmosphere there would be no clouds,” he said.

Journalist Nicole Estephan participated in the first NAAMES cruise last fall and reported how much she cherished her time at sea despite its rough weather. She told the NASA Social participants that storms and high seas made it hard to do simple things like walking and showering. “Every time a wave hits the side of the ship it’s like a cannonball hitting your head, she said.

NAAMES chief scientist Mike Behrenfeld of Oregon State University emphasized that phytoplankton blooms are very important for sustaining marine fisheries and our climate. When asked if humans are impacting them and, if so, what we can do, WHOI scientist Scott Doney described his modeling work to tease apart natural climate patterns from those caused by humans. The biggest impact humans are having is the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ultimately, the choice to reduce our carbon emissions is our responsibility. After all, humans are social — with the capacity to make new discoveries and solve problems together.