Step 1: Minor in Theater. Step 2: Devise Science Experiment.

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Josh Willis gives an impromptu science talk to 50 U.S. high school students who were also staying in Keflavik, Iceland. The students were in Iceland over their spring breaks on a trip focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Josh Willis gives an impromptu science talk to 50 U.S. high school students who were also staying in Keflavik, Iceland. The students were in Iceland over their spring breaks on a trip focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

by Patrick Lynch / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

Here’s the second part of our Q&A with Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) principal investigator Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, specializing in sea level rise. Josh is also a graduate of the improv program at Second City Hollywood Conservatory in Los Angeles. Here he describes how exercising his sense of humor improves his science.

In high school, I actually enjoyed physics and calculus, which was weird. So in college, that’s what I wound up doing. But just so I didn’t lose my humanity entirely I minored in theater, which is probably one of the best decisions I made in college. Since I’ve been in Los Angeles, I’ve taken improv classes at Second City Hollywood and continue to perform regularly with a group.

I’ve realized that I love talking about science. One of the most important things you learn in grad school is how to talk to other scientists, but it has a side effect of making you forget how to talk to everyone else. I spent 10 years learning how to talk to scientists and now I’ve had to spend 10 years unlearning that.

I think what I’ve learned from those classes and performing is important, and not just in explaining the science to people. There’s a certain amount of creativity that’s required to do innovative science. There are a lot of really big questions in climate science – like, how much will sea level rise? A certain amount of creativity is needed especially when you’re trying to propose a big project.

With OMG, we really set up a classic experiment. We are testing a hypothesis. We’re measuring the ocean, and we’re measuring the response of the glaciers. What we really want to be able to say is that we’ve measured X amount of warming and Y amount of ice melt, and we want to capture that all around the island for a period of five years. We have several different observational campaigns to try and crack this problem. And I think reawakening the creative part of my brain definitely helped cook that up.

Oceans Melting Greenland will pave the way for improved estimates of sea level rise by investigating the extent to which the oceans are melting Greenland’s ice. OMG will observe changing water temperatures and glaciers that reach the ocean around all of Greenland from 2015 to 2020.

Glaciers by Sight, Glaciers by Radar

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Views from NASA’s G-III aircraft as it flew over the eastern coast of Greenland at about 40,000 feet on March 26 with the GLISTIN-A instrument aboard.

by Patrick Lynch / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

The Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) team is flying NASA’s G-III at about 40,000 feet. On a clear day, this altitude also provides a stunning perspective of one of the world’s two great ice sheets (the other is Antarctica). The flight Saturday, March 26, over the northeast coastline was one of those clear days.

“Today was spectacular – we had really good visibility,” said Josh Willis, OMG’s principal investigator. “It was a really dramatic landscape. Really beautiful and amazing to watch.”

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But the altitude wasn’t chosen for the 40,000-foot view. It was selected out of necessity to provide the exact position needed to map the height of glacier edges where they meet the ocean.

The OMG team is now just a few flights away from mapping glacier heights around the entire coast of Greenland. These measurements will form the baseline of this first-of-its-kind experiment, clarifying the picture of how Greenland’s glaciers are responding at a time when many signs point to accelerating change.

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“Four more flights and we will have mapped the coastline all the way around Greenland and captured almost every marine-terminating glacier here,” Willis said. “That’s the goal of OMG: to get the big picture of how the ice is disappearing, where it’s happening and why.”

OMG will pave the way for improved estimates of sea level rise by investigating the extent to which the oceans are melting Greenland’s ice. OMG will observe changing water temperatures and glaciers that reach the ocean around all of Greenland from 2015 to 2020.

 

Halfway Around Greenland – So Far

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Scientist and pilots aboard NASA’s Gulfstream-III aircraft.

Principal Investigator Josh Willis (center) joins Tom Parent (left) and Dick Clark as they pilot NASA’s Gulfstream-III over the eastern coast of Greenland on Thursday, March 24.

by Patrick Lynch / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) will pave the way for improved estimates of sea level rise by investigating the extent to which the oceans are melting Greenland’s ice. OMG will observe changing water temperatures and glaciers that reach the ocean around all of Greenland from 2015 to 2020.

It’s a “hard down” day in Keflavik. The plane, pilots and crew are on the ground to plan future flights, process reams of data and decompress after seven straight days of flying that began with a transit from the U.S. to Greenland.

Days in the field last well beyond an eight-hour workday, and require switching back and forth from long-term planning, to near-term decision making, to handling the in-the-moment work of flying or maintaining the plane or operating the radar and flight systems.

“All together, it’s about all you can do in a day,” said pilot Dick Clark, who is based at Johnson Space Center.

That work, though, is paying off. The OMG team has flown over about half of Greenland’s coastline in its science flights to date, gathering data that will lay the foundation for the next five years of field work and for improved knowledge of Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise.

Map showing Greenland's glacier movement.

This map shows all the flight lines the OMG crew has flown since last week. The lines are laid over a map showing glacier velocity, with purples and blues representing the fastest-moving glaciers.

In the next few days, the team will continue with flights from Iceland and then several flights from Thule, Greenland. Ultimately, they will cover the whole coastline of the massive island, which is three times the size of Texas. From next year until 2020, the team will fly the exact same flight lines. Five years of consecutive radar measurements will tell scientists which glaciers are thinning and by how much.

Greenland from the air.

A view from NASA’s Gulfstream-III on the March 24 flight over eastern Greenland.

The next flight on Saturday, March 26 will take the crew to the northeast coast of Greenland. Today? Data, email and rest.

Goodbye Astronomy, Hello Greenland Glaciers

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JPL oceanographer Josh Willis (left), NASA G-III pilot Dick Clark (center) and crew member Rocky Smith prepare to depart for the March 24 flight from Keflavik, Iceland, over coastal glaciers in Greenland. Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) began flights this week to measure glacier thickness.

JPL oceanographer Josh Willis (left), NASA G-III pilot Dick Clark (center) and crew member Rocky Smith prepare to depart for the March 24 flight from Keflavik, Iceland, over coastal glaciers in Greenland. Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) began flights this week to measure glacier thickness.

by Patrick Lynch / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

The seven-person Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) team arrived in Keflavik earlier this week to make its first round of research flights over Greenland’s eastern coast. The team is flying NASA’s GLISTIN-A radar to measure the thickness of glaciers that flow to the ocean.

OMG will pave the way for improved estimates of sea level rise by investigating the extent to which the oceans are melting Greenland’s ice. OMG will observe changing water temperatures and glaciers that reach the ocean around all of Greenland from 2015 to 2020.

Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, specializing in sea level rise, is the principal investigator of the OMG campaign and a graduate of Second City Hollywood improv Conservatory Program in Los Angeles. Before the first flight got underway, Josh described the goal of OMG, how he arrived at his career, and how exercising his sense of humor improves his science.

“I was very curious from a young age. I asked my parents questions about how things worked all the time. Eventually, when they stopped being able to answer them, they gave me books instead of answers. I liked understanding how things worked and why they worked the way they did.

“I went to grad school for physics for two years and I failed out. Yes, you can write that. I loved taking classes and learning the physics of the last 100 years, but all the new frontiers are so esoteric that it wasn’t fun anymore. I was definitely losing interest. I tried to be an astronomer for a little while and that didn’t suit me. When I realized I wasn’t going to be a physicist I was a little lost.”

Willis was soon connected with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he eventually earned his PhD.

“I became fascinated with Earth science. I very quickly realized I wanted to study things that were important, so I started working on climate change. My adviser gave me a project to study the Tasman Sea between Tasmania and Australia. I was looking at how much the sea was warming and what that meant for sea level. When I finished, my adviser asked me what I wanted to do next. And I said, ‘I want to do the same thing – except for the whole world.’

“That was really the thing that launched me on this career of studying sea level rise. In a way, global sea level rise is the most useful number for counting how much we’ve changed the climate, for counting our footprint on the planet. Two-thirds of the planet is ocean. So if the oceans are rising, that’s two-thirds of the planet that is changing its shape.

“In the future the biggest contributors to sea level rise are going to be the ice sheets. If we get 3 feet, or 5 feet or even 6 feet by 2100, it will be because Greenland and Antarctica are melting. So these are big pieces of the puzzle. And Greenland seemed like a good one to attack. There are a lot of measurements of Greenland itself, but we really don’t have a good handle on how big a role the ocean is playing in this melting.

“What we hope to do with OMG is ultimately shed light on how much Greenland is going to melt in the future.”

 

A Front Row Seat to Your Changing Planet

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by Steve Cole / WASHINGTON /

Over the next six months this blog will take you on a globe-circling journey of exploration. You’ll travel alongside scientists who are pushing back the frontiers of what we know about how our planet works.

With a collection of innovative instruments and intricately choreographed experiments adapted to the vagaries of the natural world, they will set out by air, sea and sometimes even foot. Their mission: probing the melting edges of the Greenland ice sheet, the health of coral reefs in the South Pacific, the shifting Arctic ecosystems of Alaska and much more.

This type of scientific fieldwork has long enriched the planet-wide science that NASA pioneers with its fleet of satellites orbiting Earth. Our goal: to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. With data from space, air, land and sea we help scientists around the world tackle fundamental questions critical to human life: How is Earth changing? What causes these changes? How will Earth change in the future?

Right now NASA is in a particularly busy period of fieldwork. We have eight new major missions heading into the field over the next several months that will take scientists literally around the world on a wide range of science investigations. This blog will give you a front row seat as we report from the field with video, photos and first-hand accounts.

You can also follow along on Twitter (@NASAEarth, @NASAAirborne) and Facebook (NASA Earth, NASA Airborne Science Program); hashtag #EarthExpedition. And next month we launch a new “Earth Expeditions” series on NASA Television and YouTube.

Our first expedition is in the field right now. Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) is conducting an airborne survey of the ice edge around the entire coast of Greenland. OMG is probing the extent to which the ocean is melting the edges of the ice sheet from below.

The OMG team is in Keflavik, Iceland, now to start surveying Greenland’s eastern coast. If all goes as planned (and with fieldwork in remote locations, the best-laid plans can quickly change), we will start posting their first reports here tomorrow or Friday. So be sure to check back in with us.

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