What on Earth is That #8?

What on Earth is That?

After going on hiatus for a few months, What on Earth is That is back! We’re don’t plan to post a new question every week, but we will when we have something interesting. Here’s the latest mystery sound. Know what it is? Hint: It has something to do with NASA and Earth science.


(Post your guesses in the comments section, and check back next week for the answer….)

Here’s the question from last time
And a time before that
And that
And

Has Sulfate Pollution from Asia Masked a Decade of Warming?


Warming overwhelms the cooling effect of sulfates by about 2045 even if China and India continue to grow rapidly and delay pollution controls. Radiative forcing is a measure of influence that a climate factor has in altering the balance of Earth’s incoming and outgoing energy. Positive forcing tends to warm the surface, whereas negative forcing tends to cool it. A more detailed definition of radiative forcing is available here.


Science News
, the Washington Post, and Climate Central have all written about a new study, published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that suggests a decade-long lull in global warming, which has caused some commentators to question the scientific underpinnings of climate change, stems from large increases in sulfur dioxide emissions in Asia.
Between 2003 and 2007, global sulfur emissions have gone up by 26 percent. In the same period, Chinese sulfur dioxide emissions have doubled.

While burning coal is best known for emitting carbondioxide, a greenhouse gas, the sulfur dioxide the same process generates leads to the formation ofreflective sulfate particles that have the opposite effect on the climate. Releasing sulfates might seem, then, like a reasonable way to counteract global warming, but there’s a catch. Sulfates also cause acid rain and health problems. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution, including sulfates, causes as many as 2 million premature deaths each year.

The combination of the contradictory coal burning impacts leaves policy makers in a bind: clean up the sulfates and accelerate the pace of global warming or allow sulfates to build up and people will die directly of air pollution. Reducing sulfate is relatively cheap and the health benefits don’t take long to realize, so most industrialized countries end up adopting pollution controls that reduce sulfate emissions. The United States, as well as industrialized European countries and Japan, cut sulfate emissions significantly in the 1970s and 1980s, and there’s little reason to believe that China will follow a different path.

In fact, the Chinese government is already in the midst of an effort to reduce sulfate pollution. A team of researchers, including NASA Goddard’s Mian Chin, used satellite imagery and other data about emissions to estimate sulfate emission trends in China in a 2010 paper published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics They found that sulfur dioxide emissions increased dramatically between 2000 and 2005, particularly in Northern China. But they also found that sulfur dioxide emissions in China, which I wrote about in an earlier post, began to decline in 2006 after the government began installing large numbers of flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) devices in coal power plants.


Since 2006, flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) devices in coal power plants have caused sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants in China to begin declining.


What does it all mean for the climate? In 2010, Drew Shindell and Greg Faluvegi of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies simulated a number of emission scenarios for China and India to find out. They looked, for example, at how the climate would respond if the Chinese and Indian economies continue to expand rapidly or only grow at a moderate pace. Likewise, they modeled what would happen if China and India instituted sulfate pollution controls immediately or waited a number of decades before doing so.

In their paper, Shindell and Faluvegi present their results, shown in the line graph at the beginning of this post, as a suite of projections. The strength of warming predicted depends on whether the economies continue to grow quickly and whether sulfate pollution slows, but there is one common – and concerning – similarity between all of the projections: regardless of how fast China or India grow or put off sulfate pollution controls, it’s not enough to mask warming from carbon dioxide in the long term, particularly in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere where the climate impacts of sulfates from Asia are the most noticeable.

Here’s how the GISS authors explained the situation:

We find that while the near-term effect of air quality pollutants is to mask warming by CO2, leading to a net overall near-term cooling effect, this does not imply that warming will not eventually take place. Worldwide application of pollution control technology in use in Western developed countries and Japan along with continued CO2 emissions would lead to strong positive forcing in the long term irrespective of whether the pollution controls are applied immediately or several decades from now. Continued emissions at current (year 2000) pollutant and CO2 levels may have little near-term effect on climate, but the climate ‘debt’ from CO2 forcing will continue to mount. Once pollution controls are put into place as society demands cleaner air it will rapidly come due, leading to a “double warming” effect as simultaneous reductions in sulfate and increases in CO2 combine to accelerate global warming. The only way to avoid this would be not to impose pollution controls and to perpetually increase sulfur-dioxide emissions, which would lead to a staggering cost in human health and is clearly unsustainable.

Text by Adam Voiland. Imagery first published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.  

Marylanders: Stop and Smell the Air this July as NASA Planes Buzz Overhead


Have you ever stopped to wonder why urban air can taste like singed rubber one day and crisp mountain air the next? Or what happens to all those delectable clouds of who-knows-what flowing from factory smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes? Or what makes a blanket of dense smog shroud a city skyline on certain days?

Raymond Hoff, an air pollution expert based at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, sure has. Hoff has studied air pollution for more than three decades researching topics ranging from Arctic haze, to ozone-damaged beans on the banks of Lake Ontario, to the river of fumes that emanate from Interstate 95. He’s authored dozens of journal articles and book chapters, uses lasers to measure air pollutants, edits a blog about smog, and has led or participated in nearly two-dozen field experiments around the world. 

We caught up with Hoff to find out more about his involvement in a new project – a NASA-sponsored aircraft campaign called DISCOVER-AQ that will help fill in gaps between satellite measurements of pollution and data from ground-based stations. As part of the campaign, NASA will fly a large aircraft – a 117-foot P-3B – on low-altitude flights near major roadways.

What is your role in DISCOVER-AQ?
I manage a ground site at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) that will be part of the campaign. At UMBC, we use lidar, a type of laser, to create vertical profiles of pollutants in the atmosphere. We plan to make lidar measurements at the same time that NASA satellites and aircraft fly overhead and measure pollution from above. The idea is that the ground stations will help validate the satellite and aircraft measurements and give us a more accurate three-dimensional view of air pollution.

What are the main pollutants that you’ll be focusing on during the campaign?
In the summer in Baltimore, there are two pollutants of importance – ozone and particulate matter. Both can cause health problems. On bad air days, we see increases in the number of asthma incidents, cardiopulmonary problems, and heart attacks.


  Baltimore skyline on a clear day.                                                      
Baltimore skyline on a hazy day.   

Where does ozone come from?
Sunlight reacts with certain pollutants – such as nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and other volatile pollutants – in a long chain of reactions to produce ozone. Combustion engines, power plants, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents are key sources of the precursor gases.

What about particulate matter?
There’s a range of particulate in the air. In Baltimore, about 30 to 60 percent of the mass of particles in the air that we worry about are sulfates – small particles generated by emissions of sulfur dioxide. Coal-burning power plants, smelters, industrial boilers and oil refineries release most sulfur dioxide. The other 30 to 60
percent, depending on the day, is usually organic particles. Organics come from vehicle exhaust, evaporating paints, and various commercial and industrial sources. Vegetation also produces a significant amount of organics. The remainder is usually a mixture of dust, sea salt and nitrates. 

Is that a fairly typical mixture of pollutants?
Yes, for a large cities along the Mid-Atlantic and in the Northeast. There are certainly regional differences. There are fewer sulfates in California, for example, because they cleaned sulfur out of their fuels. You see more dust in the West, more organics in the Southeast. You see high levels of certain industrial pollutants over cities like Houston where you have a robust petrochemical industry.

Is most of Baltimore’s pollution local or does it blow in from elsewhere?
We think about half of it comes in from the west over the Appalachians. Some of it comes up from Washington, and some, of course, is local.

Tell me something interesting about air quality in Baltimore.
The role of the Chesapeake Bay and the “bay breezes” are worth mentioning. If you have an urban area right next to a body of water, like we do with the Chesapeake, you have the sun beating down creating very hot surfaces and upward transport that produces winds that circulate air between the water and the land. If you’ve been down to the beaches in the summer, you’ve probably noticed that there’s often a breeze coming off the water during the day. At night, it’s the opposite. Polluted air flows off the land and pools over the water.

Isn’t it good that polluted air pools up over the water rather than the city at night?
Not really because it comes back over land the next afternoon. There are actually Maryland Department of the Environment monitoring sites up at the top of the Bay that get higher concentrations than anywhere else in the state because of the bay breezes and the way the wind flow pinches at the top of the Bay. For example, the monitoring station at Edgewood, which is about 20 miles northeast of downtown Baltimore, tends to get hit particularly hard by bay breezes. DISCOVER-AQ is going to fly aircraft in that area, and the campaign should help us understand the full three-dimensional spatial picture over the Bay.

I’ve heard that the highest pollution levels can actually occur in the suburbs instead of directly over a city core. True?
That’s true for certain pollutants, like ozone. Ozone requires nitrogen dioxide, organic compounds, and sunlight to form. However, the process doesn’t happen immediately. It takes a few hours for the air to stew enough for ozone to form. When the wind is blowing through an urban area you can have your highest concentration of ozone downwind of a city by 20 to 30 miles.

Meaning rural landscapes don’t necessarily have pristine air?
No. In fact, farms in rural areas downwind of cities can have problems with ozone because ozone damages plant health as well as human health. Beans, for example, are highly sensitive. If ozone levels get too high, they start to get brown blotches on their leaves.

I know there are networks of ground-based sensors to measure ozone near the surface. Is it possible to measure ozone from space?
A spaceborne measurement of ozone at the ground would be a great thing, but it is still a real challenge. Much of the ozone we have on the planet is high in the atmosphere in a layer of air called the stratosphere. It’s about 15 miles up, and it’s hard to see through the stratosphere with satellite instruments because it is so thick. You could say getting a good ozone measurement is a holy grail right now for NASA and the air quality research community. We’re hoping that DISCOVER-AQ will get us closer.

Aircraft will also be flying over highways during the campaign. Why?
We know that transportation is a major source of pollution in the Baltimore area. I-95 is a big transportation corridor, and one of the things we want to look at with DISCOVER-AQ is the nitrogen dioxide released by combustion engines. There are very few nitrogen dioxide ground instruments in the area, so we’re flying over the highways to see if we can pick out a signal. We’ve been able to start measuring nitrogen dioxide from space in the last few years, but we can improve those measurements by validating them with ground data.

Credit information. Text by Adam Voiland. Flight tracks visualization by the Scientific Visualization Studio. NASA P-3B shot available here. Baltimore hazy/clear comparison from CamNet. Sea breeze illustrations from NOAA. Ozone-damaged leaf shot available here.

Has the Arctic Gotten Sootier Over the Last Century?

Black carbon, the sooty particle that gives smoke from diesel engines and cooking fires a dark appearance, took center stage this week when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a high-profile meeting of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.

Black carbon has attracted the attention of climatologists and policy makers alike because its complex structure makes it so good at absorbing sunlight. To make this point, University of Illinois-based Tami Bond, one of the nation’s leading black carbon specialists, noted during a Congressional hearing last year that one ounce of black carbon dispersed in the atmosphere would block the amount of sunlight that would fall on a tennis court. The absorbed energy then gets transferred to the atmosphere as heat and contributes to global warming.

The Arctic Council meeting coincided with the release of two scientific reports focused on the cryosphere. The first, authored by the scientific arm of the Arctic Council, argued that the United Nations underestimated the rate at which the Arctic is losing sea ice and concluded the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free within the next thirty to forty years. The second makes the case that it’s possible to cut Arctic ice loss significantly by curbing black carbon emissions.

I’ve written before about the possibility that reducing black carbon emissions could save Arctic Sea ice. Recent modeling, conducted by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and funded in-part by NASA, suggests that eliminating soot emissions from fossil fuel and biofuel burning over the next fifteen years could reduce Arctic warming by up to 1.7 °C (3 °F). (Net warming in the Arctic, in comparison, has been about 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) over the last century.

Future emissions aside, what has actually been happening with black carbon deposition trends in the Arctic? Have black carbon emissions, like carbon dioxide emissions, been going steadily up in recent decades?

A recent report, authored by climatologists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, offers a nice overview that I’ve excerpted below. It may come as a surprise that the amount of black carbon winds are dumping on Arctic ice has actually fallen over the last few decades. From the GISS study:

Recently there has been concern about impacts of black carbon on snow albedo in the Arctic and whether that has contributed to melting of Arctic sea-ice and snow. Some studies have focused on changes in Arctic BC since the 1980s when measurements were first made. Sharma et al. (2004) found a 60% decrease in atmospheric black carbon at Alert between 1989 and 2002. Recent Arctic snow measurements (e.g. Grenfell et al., 2009; Hegg et al., 2009) found BC concentrations to be about 5-15 ng g−1 in Canada, Alaska and the Arctic Ocean, about a factor of two lower than measured in the 1980s (e.g. Clarke and Noone, 1985). Contemporary Russian measurements are larger than the western Arctic, ranging from about 15-80 ng g−1, while BC concentrations in the Barants and Kara seas were measured at about 15-25 ng g−1 (Grenfell et al., 2009; Hegg et al., 2009). The Greenland ice sheet has relatively very low BC levels, about 2-3 ng g−1, similar to the measurements in the 1980s (Grenfell et al., 2009).

Bond showed some particularly helpful graphs during her testimony last year that give long-term emission trends. According to Bond’s estimates, black carbon emissions peaked around the turn of the century when dirty cooking stoves were common.

She also has showed a good graph that shows the sectors that produce the most black carbon.

Text by Adam Voiland. Image of Pitufkin Glacier in Greenland from NASA’s IceBridge Mission. Graphs from Tami Bond. 

Aquarius Launches to Survey Earth's Salty Sea


Joe Witte
filed this report from the media viewing site at Vandenberg Air Force Base shortly before the Aquarius satellite blasted successfully into space

More than a dozen reporters from Argentina are either standing or slowly moving about trying to stay warm while waiting for the launch of the Aquarius satellite. The low cloud deck over Vandenberg Air Force Base in California puts a damper on their spirits after traveling all the way from South America to see a Delta II rocket quickly disappear on it’s way to an orbit 400 miles above the earth.


Scientists from Argentina collaborated with NASA researchers to develop a highly specialized instrument to measure the amount of salt in the world’s oceans. It has taken nearly three decades of research and technical development to get to this point. Thirty years of work will disappear into the fog in a couple of seconds.


If all goes well after about 30 days of testing and calibrating, the satellite will be sending down valuable data on the salinity of the oceans.

The amount of salt in a parcel of water, along with the water’s temperature, determines the buoyancy of a parcel or body of water. For instance, along the southern east coast of the US the Gulf Stream becomes very salty because the tropical sun warms the ocean surface and produces evaporation from the ocean.Evaporation leaves salt behind in the ocean water at the surface leaving the Gulf Steam especially salty.

The salty water cools as the Gulf Stream flows into the northern areas off Canada with colder air temperatures. Cold temperatures and high salinity result in dense water, which slowly sinks into the depths of the northern Atlantic. This process is what drives the deep ocean circulation around the whole Earth. Since 70 percent of the planet is ocean the effects on climate are very significant. 

Over the coming years, climate scientists and oceanographers expect to make many new discoveries with Aquarius data.

Top image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls. Lower image credit: NASA/Joe Witte. Text by Joe Witte.

A Mesmerizing Tour of Earth


This mesmerizing tour of Earth, narrated by a scientist from Johnson Space Center’s Crew Earth Observations Office, offers an extraordinary view of the surface from the vantage point of an astronaut orbiting on the International Space Station.

Curious to learn more about some of the areas highlighted? Here’s a list of what, to me, at least, are eye-popping shots of some of the same places as seen by instruments aboard the many unmanned satellites that also orbit Earth.

A three-dimensional view of dunes in the Namib Desert
The four-mile Tin Bider impact crater plus a sea of dunes in Algeria
A massive dust plume blowing off the Tunisian coast 
Madagascar with Tropical Storm Manou slamming its eastern coast 
A volcanic ash cloud streaming from Sicily’s Mount Etna
A series of eruptions from snow-covered Kamchatka Peninsula
Eastern China blanketed by haze
The greening of an alluvial fan in Iran
A chain of Australian islands as seen by Landsat
Hurricane Florence swirling in the Atlantic
The divided waters of the Great Salt Lake colored by algae
The Missouri River spilling over its banks
The confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers
Big Bend’s complex geological history
Shallow waters encircling the reefs of the Bahamas
The Andes pockmarked with stratovolcanoes
Thunderstorms forming over Brazil
The source of the Amazon River


Text by Adam Voiland. Imagery published originally by the Earth Observatory

Fires Rage in Siberia


Hundreds of fires raged in eastern Russia and Siberia over the weekend. On Sunday, Russia’s Emergency Ministry reported that around 100,000 hectares were ablaze. The flare-up follows devastating fires that struck western Russia last summer. Those fires began in the wake of an extended heat wave generated by an unusual blocking high that disrupted the jet stream and left the region parched for weeks. 

Bill Lau of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has investigated the nature of last summer’s blocking high and found evidence that the same weather system produced downpours in Pakistan that led to record-breaking flooding in that region. 

NASA’s Terra satellite retrieved the image above with MODIS on Sunday, May 22nd.  

For the Swollen Mississippi the Atchafalaya Beckons


The storms that recently sent a rash of tornadoes through the South have produced historic flooding along the Mississippi River. Over the weekend, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana for just the second time since buidling the structure in 1954.

Though the action will likely lessen damage in the major cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, opening the Morgananza will inundate thousands of square kilometers of land and displace between 30,000 and 60,000 people as spillover swells the Atchafalaya River.

The Atchafalaya, as the New Yorker’s John McPhee explains in masterly fashion in The Control of Nature, is on the verge of capturing the Mississippi’s flow. The Army Corps of Engineers diverts just 30 percent of the Mississippi’s water into the Atchafalaya, though the natural inclination of the Mississippi is to jump its banks and flow into the shorter and steeper Atchafalaya channel.

McPhee, in an essay that’s as relevant today as it when it was first published in 1987, describes the daunting challenge engineers face in trying to keep the Mississippi within its banks. It makes for sobering reading, but the essay makes an excellent complement to the series of satellite photos NASA’s Earth Observatory has released chronicling the flooding.

In the excerpt below, McPhee describes the Mississippi’s tendency to shift its course in swift and dramatic ways:

The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier—arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it. By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was a hundred and forty-five miles—well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina—with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places—it was often called “the American Ruhr.” The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.

Text by Adam Voiland. Photographs published originally by NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Can Climate Change Fuel Tornadoes?

Between April 25 and April 28, a record-breaking total of 362 tornadoes tore through the southeastern and central United States. Could climate change fuel such an unprecedented cluster of twisters? A number of commentators have addressed the question, but the most concise answer I’ve heard yet comes in the 36th minute of an On Point interview with NOAA tornado expert Harold Brooks. [The bolding is mine.]

On Point: When you look at the architecture of the weather that produced these storms can you tie it to global climate change? We’ve seen warning after warning saying that we may see an increase in storm conditions because of climate change.

Brooks: Well, the planet has undoubtedly warmed in the last 50 to 100 years. And it will undoubtedly continue to warm as greenhouse gases play a greater role. It’s not really clear what the connection is between tornadoes [and climate change] in particular. Some of the ingredients we look for in the production of supercells, such as the warm moist air at low levels, are going to increase in intensity and frequency and be supportive of supercell storms. On the other hand, one of the main predictions of climate change is that the equator to pole temperature difference will decrease because the poles will warm more than the equator. That’s related to the change of the winds with height term, which is one of the things that helps organize storms and make them more likely to produce tornadoes. That’s predicted to lessen as we go along. So we’ve got some ingredients that will be increasing in intensity and some that will be decreasing. If we look historically at the record and try to make some adjustments over the last 50 years for what we know is changes in reporting, we really see no correlation between occurrence and intensity and global surface temperatures or even the US national temperature.

While scientists will surely continue to study this, one thing is quite certain: When tornadoes do come along, NASA will do all it can to track and monitor them and their aftermath using satellites and other assets. On May 2, 2011, for example, the NASA Earth Observatory reported that the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured the natural-color image above of a massive tornado’s destructive path through Tuscaloosa.

The trail of damage stretched 80.3 miles (129.2 kilometers) long and as much as 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) wide.The tan-toned, debris-filled path passes through the center of town, affecting both commercial and residential properties. The track passes south of Bryant Denny Stadium and just north of University Mall. The Tuscaloosa tornado caused more than 1,000 injuries and at least 65 deaths across several town and cities, the highest number of fatalities from a single tornado in the United States since May 25, 1955.      –Adam Voiland

For more information about this image, please visit this NASA Earth Observatory page.

Viva la (Geospatial) Revolution!



Our hats are off to the folks at Penn State Public Broadcasting for explaining how mapping technologies are changing our world for the better with their 
Geospatial Revolution Project. Their latest video, the fourth in a series, features NASA Goddard’s Compton Tucker and Molly Brown. The best quote (emphasis mine) comes from Brown:“When you’re making decisions, you can’t just take anecdotal information. You need quantified, explicit information which really will let you determine: is this bad, is this really bad, so we don’t over respond, and we don’t ignore a real problem.” Whether you’re talking about anticipating famine, predicting a hurricane’s path, or mitigating climate change, Brown’s comments are right on target.  –Adam Voiland