Earth Buzz: Beautiful Igor, Smoke, and More

Beautiful Igor
Astronauts have called the massive storm in the Caribbean
“Igor the Horrible”, but from above the monster of a storm sure looks stunning. (Earth Observatory)

Up in Smoke

Fascinated by fire? It’s not just firefighters and arsonists. NASA researchers, such as Langley’s Elena Kukavskaya, make careers of tracking smoke. (Langley)

Mountain Pine beetles could be priming the pump for huge wildfires in the Rocky Mountains. (NASA Explorer)

GogBlog Video Rewind
Hurricane Alley sends storms barreling up the Atlantic coast every year in late summer and early fall, but how do the giant storms actually form and why? (Geeked on Goddard)

Evolution from Afar

NASA’s ASTER instrument offers a satellite view of the world-famous Australopithecus Afarensis Lucy. (My Big Fat Planet)

Icy Adventures
Learn how just one satellite–the recently departed IceSat–measured the thickness of ice sheets, the health of sea ice, and even the height of the world’s forests. (Goddard Cryospheric Sciences Branch)

Satellites, Ice Sheets, and Earth’s Shifting Surface(Oh My)
New calculations suggest the melting of the Laurentide ice sheet has shifted Earth’s surface and center of mass. (JPL)

Stayed Tuned

The annual Arctic Ocean sea ice minimum is coming in the next few weeks (as is the annual maximum of the ozone hole over Antarctica). In the meantime, check out this snapshot of the polar region captured by Aqua in early September. (

Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory

What On Earth (Sound) Is That? #4

Regular readers know the drill by now: Every other Friday we post a snippet of one of the many strange and fascinating bits of earth science that pass through our inboxes here at What On Earth, and then you all have a week to show off your science savvy by hazarding a guess (or two or three, if you’d like) in the comments. The last clue was an easy one, but we’re predicting this one–our first sound–will stump most of you.  Listen up, and prove us wrong…

Remember, the answer usually has something to do with….
a) Earth Science

Something on your mind? Email us suggestions and feedback at  

Piloting Through Hurricane Earl

NASA scientists are deep into a two-month airborne hurricane research campaign known as GRIP (Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes). GRIP is designed to put multiple aircraft, outfitted with scientific instruments, above a hurricane at the same time, allowing scientists to observe these destructive storms for longer periods than ever before. GRIP is breaking new ground by flying the unmanned Global Hawk at 60,000 feet above the surface, the first time NASA has used this drone in a hurricane field campaign.

But the NASA’s DC-8 and WB-57 planes get to a hurricane the old-fashioned way — with pilots in the cockpit. Dryden Flight Research Center DC-8 pilot Dick Ewers spoke to the media in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., last week about what it takes and what it’s like to fly into the heart of a storm that your average pilot would try to avoid entirely. What On Earth was on hand to get some of his thoughts.

What should a first-time rider expect on a DC-8 flight through a hurricane?

It’s pretty bumpy at times, but most of the time it’s a lot of clouds. Then, as we get closer, we’ll go into some bumps and turbulence. As we break out into the eye, hopefully we’ll be able to see the sky above and all the way down to the water below. That’s very nice. All the sudden you’re out of the car wash and you’re looking down and can see what’s happening below. Normally it’s about 10 to 15 minutes of excitement per hour.

What’s the strongest Earl was when you flew through it?

At our level it was about 100 mph, but the worst part is down below. We’re above where it’s very intense. And when you’re flying in an airplane and through an airmass, and the airmass is moving at 100 mph, you don’t really notice that. But what you do notice is when you come out, the winds drops off and the airplane rises and falls based on what’s happening around it. So the plane isn’t able to be very level at times.

What’s your strategy to make sure the plane rides smoothly?

Most of the time it’s very solid. It’s bumpy but it isn’t weaving back and forth.

Even in 100 mph winds?

Oh, yeah. It goes right through it.

Is there a level of risk involved?

My job is to take the risk out of it. My job is to make sure what I do is safe and doesn’t put the scientists or the instruments at risk. My whole mission is to make sure that plane is back here tonight. Where the risk and danger is, I will take precautions and go around it and do something to avoid something where danger is involved.

How many flights did you make through Earl?

This will be the fourth and final flight. We thought it was declining yesterday, but it’s stronger this morning, so we’re going back out.

How was the view of the eye?

There are rare storms that are very crystal clear. This one had a lot of strataform in there, so there were clouds around and some clouds above us, so it wasn’t a pristine, clear blue eye. But you were able to see daylight above us and the water below us. I want to say it was 20 to 25 miles wide inside. You wouldn’t want to be in a boat down there.

— Patrick Lynch, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Images taken by Patrick Lynch during the Sept. 2 GRIP media day in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Earth Buzz: Peering into Earl's Eye, Sailing Smoke, and More

Flying Over Earl’s Eye

Scientists aboard NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory headed straight for Earl’s eye Wednesday as the storm bore down on the Eastern Seaboard. (GRIP Mission Page)

Eerie View of Frank
NASA’s Global Hawk snapped this extraordinary view of Tropical Storm Frank from 60,000 feet. (

Smoke Sailing High
Satellites captured evidence that massive Russian fires lofted smoke aerosols an impressive 12 kilometers up. (Earth Observatory)

El Niño Strengthens
A new type of El Niño, which has its warmest waters in the central-equatorial Pacific Ocean, rather than in the eastern-equatorial Pacific, is becoming more common and progressively stronger. (JPL)

New Earth Observer
Take a look at the latest issue of the Earth Observer [pdf] for details about NASA projects Aquarius, SORCE, and AIRS. (Earth Observer)

The Dynamic Earth
Yep, as this video nicely lays out, NASA studies that. In fact, understanding and protecting the planet is a key part of NASA’s mission. (EOSPOS)

Tweet of the Week
NASA GRIP MISSION PHOTO! Hurricane Earl Caught in a GRIP – image taken from the DC-8 aircraft today over Earl:… (NASAHurricane)

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Larger image available here

You're Getting Warmer

Have you noticed all the hot – and erratic – weather this summer?

So has NASA GISS climatologist Jim Hansen. He’s out with the draft of a new paper and popular summary that explores July’s anomalous weather. His main point:

The global average July 2010 temperature was 0.55°C warmer than climatology in the GISS analysis, which puts 2010 in practically a three way tie for third warmest July. July 1998 was the warmest in the GISS analysis, at 0.68°C.

Here’s his prediction on whether 2010 will shape up as the warmest in the GISS record:

2010 is likely, but not certain, to be the warmest year in the GISS record. However, because of the cooling effect of La Niña in the remainder of the year, there is a strong possibility that the 2005 and 2010 global temperatures will be sufficiently close that they will be practically indistinguishable.

And his take on whether the extreme weather events – such as the brutal heat wave that’s hammered Moscow – are connected to global climate change:

The location of extreme events in any particular month depends on specific weather patterns, which are unpredictable except on short time scales. The weather patterns next summer will be different than this year. It could be a cooler than average summer in Moscow in 2011…What we can say is that global warming has an effect on the probability and intensity of extreme events.

This points to the distinction that scientists are always making between weather and climate. Solar activity, El Nino or even volcanic eruptions can affect the weather and temperature over a short term. But when it comes to classifying what is happening to the climate, the trend must be clear and free of these influences. The climate “signal” must emerge from the data over the course of at least a decade.

What’s happening with the global surface temperature record fits this bill, Hansen said in the draft paper. Despite El Ninos, La Ninas, changes in the Arctic Oscillation, fluctuations in the sun’s radiance, snowy winters and cool summers, hot summers and warm winters, the continued trend of the average global surface temperature remains on an upward climb.

To learn more about NASA’s surface temperature record, visit this temperature update from earlier this year. Also, you can visit GISS’s technical page for detailed information about GISS’s surface temperature record.

— By Patrick Lynch and Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

–The map at top was created by NASA’s Earth Observatory using data from MODIS 

NASA Earth Buzz: Steamy July, Shakedown in the Gulf, and Look How Good We All Look

Degrees of Change
New data from GISS puts July 2010 in a three-way tie with 1998 and 2005 for warmest July on record. (Earth Observatory)

“Shakedown” in the Gulf
NASA’s DC-8, which is in Florida preparing to hunt for hurricanes, took to the air this week for a practice flight as part of GRIP. (

Fingerprints of Fire
A massive plume of carbon monoxide made its way across Asia, unleashed by Russian wildfires. (JPL)

A Bit of Elegance for Your Day
A visual artist at the Earth Observatory has a new blog on the development of science imagery; the first post offers fascinating details about imaging Eyjafjallajökull. (Elegant Figures)

Gray Marble
See Earth in its grayest and gloomiest glory. (My Big Fat Planet)

Straight to the Source
Tired of the filter? Get closer to the data with this new Twitter feed from the Data Information and Services Center at Goddard, one of eight core data dissemination groups across NASA. (NASA_GESDISC)

Tweet of the Week
We look good, don’t we? (NASA_GoddardPix)

Reading the Sky

Recently, a colleague and I caught a glimpse of an odd-looking contrail stretching across the sky. As we stood there and studied it, my colleague made in interesting observation.

“That’s the trail from a rocket launch,” he said. He was referring to a launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which is about 70 miles northeast of our location at NASA Langley in Hampton, Va.

A contrail is formed when hot, humid air from exhaust mixes with cold, dryer air at high altitudes. The condensation trail forms a cloud that shows the passage of the aircraft (or, in this case, a spacecraft). Contrails can change and move easily, and by studying them we can determine how they affect Earth’s energy budget.

It can be hard to read the sky correctly because the curvature of the Earth produces some confusing optical effects. In this case, our ground perspective about 70 miles from the launch made the trail appear at first as a regular contrail crossing the sky horizontally.

But as I continued to watch, it became clear that this was no ordinary contrail. Rather than continuing across the sky, the trail clearly became higher and higher until it vanished entirely as the rocket left the bulk of the atmosphere behind.

Aside from that high arc, this trail had some other odd features. Unlike a typical contrail, which is usually pretty smooth, this one looked narrow and wiggly. Those wiggles, I discovered, were the result of adjustments in the pointing of the rocket as it zoomed through the atmosphere. This is apparent in the video of the launch.

The winds were relatively light that evening, so about 45 minutes later the trail was still clearly visible overhead. However, there was just enough wind to twist the contrail into something that could have been left behind by a crazed aerobatic pilot.

I searched the web and found the picture on the left from a Shuttle launch, which gives you some idea of what we saw.

From my point of view on the ground, there was nothing to tell me that those loops weren’t a horizontal set of circles made by a plane flying at a constant altitude. But since I knew that a rocket had left the trail, I could correctly interpret them as a spiral up to higher levels of the atmosphere.

While this experience is an extreme example, it points out the perspective problems at work whenever we look up at the sky.

Nonetheless, our Earthly perspective is valuable to learning more about clouds’ behavior, and with the help of satellites, we can get a little closer to understanding how clouds affect our climate system.

— By Dr. Lin Chambers, NASA Langley Research Center

— Top photo courtesy of Allen Kilgore, NASA Langley Research Center

What On Earth is That? #3

(Please post your answers and your name in the comments, and we’ll give the answer next week….)

Here at What on Earth, we’re constantly stumbling across interesting photos, videos, and audio clips from NASA’s exploration of our planet (be it from space, the field, or the lab.). We’ve started posting snippets of them every now and then, usually on Fridays. What we post will change, but the question to you all will always be the same: “What on Earth is that?”

We’ll give you a week to mull it over and guess (use the comments), and we’ll post the answer the following Friday. Our only hints:

1) Our picks will always be related to Earth science in one way or another, and…

2) They’ll have some relation to what we do here at NASA.

Snowpocalypse Revisited

Though the summer heat and humidity makes it seem like a lifetime ago, the record-breaking snows in the eastern U.S. last winter are not something we will soon forget. Several feet of powder fell on most of the Mid-Atlantic region during February 2010, and this week a study from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory gives us new insight into what caused the freaky weather.

A rare combination of weather — not climate — patterns seems to be the culprit. El Niño produced abnormally wet conditions in the southeastern U.S.; a negative North Atlantic Oscillation pushed frigid Arctic air down from the North. This collision of moisture with abnormally cold air led to more than six feet of snow over the region between December 2009 and February 2010.

The visualization above, derived from the Goddard Earth Observing System Model Version 5 (GEOS-5) and created by NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio, shows the first wave of the February snowstorms hitting the East Coast about four seconds into the animation. The second wave forms off the west coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula — about twelve seconds in — and then pummels the East Coast.

— Michelle Williams, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

How to Work at NASA Without Working for NASA

Ron Cohen, Anne Thompson and Ed Zipser all have two things in common: All three are playing important roles in NASA research campaigns, and none of them work for NASA.

NASA is one of the world’s largest Earth science research institutions, but it didn’t achieve that status solely through the work of its own employees. Instead, NASA’s Earth science field campaigns and satellite missions are constructed so that the agency can tap the best person – whether a university professor, a NASA staffer, or a scientist in another government agency – for any specific job.

The result is a grassroots approach that focuses on what the community thinks is the most important science, rather than a top-down approach.

Take Cohen, head of the Atmospheric Sciences Center at University of California (Berkeley). NASA can gain access to his expertise, and Cohen can work on large-scale research campaigns that a single university likely wouldn’t have the resources to conduct.

“The NASA facilities are really first-class,” Cohen said. “Being able to take advantage of the NASA aircraft to reach rarely studied places in the world is unrivaled. Bringing together the best people from the scientific community allows us all to work much more effectively than if we were try to do it alone.”

Cohen is working on a new “venture class” campaign called DISCOVER-AQ, which is focused on improving satellite measurement of air quality at the Earth’s surface. But his history with NASA goes back 20 years, and includes work on the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on the Aura satellite and other aircraft campaigns.

Thompson, a professor of meteorology at Penn State, is also working on DISCOVER-AQ. Penn State’s NATIVE — Nittany Atmospheric Trailer and Integrated Validation Experiment — has been stationed at Langley Research Center the past two summers to measure a variety of air quality parameters, and has been deployed as far as Yellowknife, Canada, near the Arctic Circle, for the ARCTAS field campaign in 2008. Thompson joined the Penn State faculty five years ago, after an 18-year career at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Working with NASA keeps Thompson and her students engaged with the global science community. Getting her students in the field to make regular measurements helps them understand the importance of sustained observations of the environment.

“I want them to be able to think about working for NASA, either directly or for a contractor,” Thompson said. “It’s real work, real training. It gets young fresh faces into NASA. The synergism is very important.”

Zipser, a hurricane expert at the University of Utah, is taking part this summer in his 10th NASA field campaign since 1993. As one of the leaders of the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) experiment, Zipser is helping develop the flight plans for multiple aircraft that will fly over tropical storms as they develop.

“Working with NASA has given me, my students, and colleagues a broader knowledge base, a broader group of experts to work with,” Zipser said. “And I’ve been able to give a little back to NASA and use my horse-sense of storms to develop flight plans.”

Patrick Lynch, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

–Penn State researchers release an ozonesonde at Langley Research Center (top, courtesy of Sean Smith, LaRC); forest fire near Yellowknife, Canada (bottom, courtesy NASA).