During the extreme heat waves and droughts of the early 1980s, climatologist James Hansen noticed coincident public discussions about the possible link of extreme events to climate change. He says discussion cooled, however, when natural variability turned up a season with average or cold temperatures. In 1988, another heat wave and drought wiped out crops in the U.S. Midwest, and resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, according to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. That same year, Hansen introduced the analogy of loaded dice to demonstrate variability and the growing frequency of extreme temperature events.
On one of the six-sided dice, Hansen painted two sides blue, two sides white, and two sides red to represent the chance of a cold, average, or warm summer season, respectively. That’s how the dice would have rolled from 1951 to 1980, when climate was relatively stable. On the other die – this one loaded – Hansen painted one side blue, one side white, and four sides red. That’s how climate models suggested the dice would roll by the first decade of the 21st century, should the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere play out as it did.
“If you keep track for several seasons you notice the frequency of the anomalies has now changed, and you’re getting much more of those on the warm side than on the cool side,” Hansen says.
The changes that Hansen and colleagues calculated in 1988 turned out to be close to reality, as far as how many sides of the dice would now be red as opposed to blue to represent today’s climate. But a key difference between the 1988 dice and the new climate dice is the addition of an entirely new color. Almost one full side previously red is now brown, representing a new category of extreme hot events.
“I didn’t think about adding another color in 1988,” Hansen says. “Since then I have realized that the extreme cases are the most interesting and hold the most potential for impact, such as we’re seeing this summer in the case of the drought and devastated corn crop.”
The division between warm and cool will continue to change in the future, Hansen says. “But it’s still a crapshoot and you shouldn’t take one cool season as an indication that there’s something wrong with our understanding of global temperature and warming.”
Changes in rainfall affect more than just land-based ecosystems. New research shows that increased rainfall in Maine led to the decline of ocean dwelling plant-like organisms called phytoplankton, which make up the base of the oceanic food web.
Researchers led by William Balch, of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, found that more rainfall translates into more river runoff flowing into the Gulf of Maine. The runoff, in turn, prevents phytoplankton from receiving the nutrients and light they need to thrive, researchers reported March 29 in Marine Ecology Progress Series. Read the study here, and Bigelow Laboratory’s story here.
“We demonstrated a massive, five-fold drop in primary production in this region — along with other big changes — associated with the record-breaking precipitation events that started in the mid-2000’s,” Balch said.
The researchers combined climate and river flow data with the results from a 12-year time series collected during the NASA-funded Gulf of Maine North Atlantic Time Series (GNATS) project. Between 1998 and 2010, GNATS documented changes in nutrient concentrations, phytoplankton biomass, and carbon fixation between Portland, Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (see map, below).
“We combined climate data from over a century, river run-off data and the coastal time series to show how intimately the coastal ecosystem is connected to hydrological processes on land,” Balch said.
It remains to be seen how the shift in the base of the food web will trickle up to impact the Gulf of Maine’s fish, lobster, and the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which has been known to feed in the Gulf.
Text by Kathryn Hansen. Top image: William Balch collects temperature measurements from the Gulf of Maine. Credit: Globe Staff / Dina Rudick. For related images, check out The Boston Globe’s “Climate Change in the Ocean” gallery.
Bottom image: Data from NASA’s Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor shows areas in the Gulf of Maine that on May 11, 2002, exhibited the high chlorophyll concentrations (red and orange) that mark thriving phytoplankton populations. New research shows that increased rainfall and river runoff caused phytoplankton to decrease five-fold since the mid-2000s. Credit: NASA
A new, updated map reveals how the Antarctic continent looks under the ice, detailing each mountain range and valley. Beyond its undeniable beauty, this high-resolution map of Antarctica’s bed topography, dubbed BEDMAP2, will help scientists model how ice sheets and glaciers respond to changes in the environment.
A large international consortium of Antarctic field programs, including NASA IceBridge, contributed information to this updated map of bed elevation and ice thickness for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The first version of BEDMAP was completed in 2000. The new version, which was presented on Dec. 5 at the American Geophysical Union’s 2011 Fall Meeting, incorporates seismic and radar data from about 265,000 km of airborne surveys over the ice.
“We are lacking fundamental data on ice thickness and bedrock elevation over large parts of Antarctica, because these areas are hard to reach,” said IceBridge project scientist Michael Studinger. “We’ll continue to fill in critical information gaps on places such as the Recovery Glacier in Coats Land, East Antarctica. This area has long been on the wish list of ice sheet modelers, but it is very far away from all research bases.”
This year, IceBridge’s DC-8 aircraft was able to fly four times over Recovery Glacier from Punta Arenas, Chile. “We have collected a landmark data set that will fill a critical hole in new BEDMAP compilations,” Studinger said.
Text by Maria-José Viñas. Image courtesy of the BEDMAP Consortium. The new version of BEDMAP will soon be freely available. Read more about the BEDMAP2 on the project’s website.
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.
Last week, we posted our first mystery sound in our latest installment of “What on Earth is That?”> We had some interesting guesses; one reader guessed the noisemaker was an earthquake and another guessed it was a calving ice. The answer is somewhere in the middle.
Giant icebergs may sink ships, but they also have their weaknesses. The sound you heard is the seismic signal recorded in October 2005 when a monstrous iceberg drifting off the coast of Antarctica’s Cape Adare crashed into the previously unknown Davey Shoal and broke apart. (Science News covered the collision in this July article.) The full length of the audio file, sped up by a factor of 100, can be heard below. Within just 90 seconds, you can experience the full 2.5-hour event.
The “tap, tap, tap” is from cracks propagating through the massive chunk of ice. The effect is similar to what you hear if you drop ice cubes into a glass of water. The cracking noise crescendos until about 1:15, followed by a subtle hum resembling a muffled chain saw. That noise, from the phenomenon of ice pieces rubbing against each other, becomes most noticeable after the breakup. The same saw-like noise heard prior to 1:15 is thought to be the bottom of the berg rubbing on the shoal.
Fortunately, plenty of information about the behemoth berg, which measured about 820 feet vertically and spanned some 75 miles by 19 miles, was available. Before the breakup, scientists had deployed an instrument package on B15A that included GPS and a seismometer. Later, a separate research group mapped the seafloor topography within the same area. “We knew from breakup that there ought to be something there,” said Seelye Martin, of University of Washington in Seattle, who led the study.
Overlaying the satellite images on the seafloor map, researchers recreated the series of events. On October 28, the berg hit the top of an underwater shoal 5.6 miles long and 705 feet below the surface at its highest point. The seismic information, heard in this post, matched the collision observed in the satellite imagery. Listening to the seismic music of the Earth is not new; geologists have long listened to the “rock music” of seismic waves from earthquakes. “But the iceberg has a very different signature,” Martin said. “Earthquakes sound like a big boom or slip, while in this case you can actually hear something breaking up.”
So what does it all mean? “It’s an interesting result, but it’s not a world changer,” Martin said. “We now know a little more about the obstacles — and sound — of some ill-fated icebergs leaving the Ross Sea.”
— Kathryn Hansen, NASA’s Earth Science News Team
Images and sound are courtesy of Seelye Martin, University of Washington
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).
Guest contributor Karen Romano Young (photo at right) blogs from NASA’s ICESCAPE expedition…
There’s a sign on the door of the room I share with Sharmila Pal and Emily Peacock. It’s a green square of plastic engraved with a picture of a polar bear and the words “SCIENCE – LATE SLEEPER.” So many of the scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy for the ICESCAPE mission are awake through the night that the ship’s engraver, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Sean Lyons, has turned out a special edition of late sleeper signs, complete with a rocket ship for NASA. Almost every door boasts a sleeper sign of one kind or another.
The reason? Aboard ICESCAPE, the science goes on 24 hours a day. We’re on a path to the far north, steaming from station to station through the night. Sometimes we’re in ice, sometimes we’re in open ocean, sometimes there’s a mix. Sometimes, there are walruses and seals. Each group of scientists has divided their schedule into shifts, so while some are catching their zzz’s behind those “late sleeper” signs, others are awake and overseeing operations, making measurements, and processing samples.
NASA’s Stanford Hooker takes the small boat out to measure light and take water samples, away from the interference of the ship. Karen Frey’s group from Clark University works on ice stations and takes Van Veen grabs in the open sea. (It’s like a giant pooper-scooper that scoops sediment from the ocean floor).
Bob Pickart of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution works to assess currents and other elements of physical oceanography, such as eddies and upwelling, as we pass through the ocean. James Swift, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, oversees the CTD, a rosette of siphons and bottles triggered to sample water at various depths. (CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, and depth.) Greg Mitchell, Rick Reynolds, and their groups from Scripps measure the ocean’s optical properties with a small profiler dropped from the bow and with the Inherent Optical Properties (IOP) package of instruments deployed from the stern.
Sketch by Karen Romano Young
“We’re all working on different pieces of the same puzzle,” Reynolds says. “It’s impossible for one group to measure all we need to know. [Chief Scientist] Kevin Arrigo’s group is looking at core pigments, the plant pigments in the water column. Others are looking at chemical analyses of the nutrients in the water. It’s a big team effort. The ice people are working in a completely different environment, but there are algae in both places.”
The $250,000 IOP suite of instruments assesses the health of the ocean by analyzing the absorption and scattering of light by particles suspended in the water, including chlorophyll-rich algae; the quantity and quality of algae (the health and growth rate); and the presence of minerals and sediment. Each instrument on the IOP contributes to a picture of the makeup of the particles by assessing changes in light transmission.
“We start at the top,” says Reynolds (shown at left). “We look at what the NASAsatellite sees — the sea color — and parse out the differentcharacteristics of the water — how much algae, and what else is there,such as minerals from rivers, re-suspended sediment (mud stirred intothe water) and melting ice.” The resulting data will help thescientists develop new algorithms — equations for solving problems –to support the satellites.
NASA ice- and ocean-observing satellites, now working for more than ten years, are beginning to allow us to examine changes in the climate. One purpose of ICESCAPE is to look at the ocean with greater detail than the satellites offer, in order to improve and refine the interpretation of the satellite data.
“We’re here because NASA wants to know what the satellites are seeing right here at the stations,” says Reynolds, “where nobody else may sample for decades, because the ocean is so vast.”
All imagery, including the IOP sketch, courtesy of Karen Romano Young
The question, posed by an educated Virginia resident, illustrates a general unawareness that the state is home to one of the world’s oldest launch sites — NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
The facility, named after John Wallop who was granted the land in 1692, launched its first rocket on July 4, 1945 and has since launched more than 16,000 vehicles. Beyond launches, however, Wallops is home to other modes of space and Earth science, many of which were on display June 5 at an open house celebrating the center’s 65th anniversary.
Perhaps it’s the center’s location that keeps it hidden from the public eye. Nestled 200 miles away from urban areas, on Virginia’s eastern shore near Chincoteague Island, the coastline provides a prime location for launching suborbital and orbital rockets, targets for the military and testing unpiloted aerial vehicles. Being next to the ocean allows NASA to safely test unproven vehicles and also provides a location for conducting coastal Earth science studies.
Wallops hosts a scientific balloon program, on display at the 65th open house. Adrift at high altitudes in Earth’s atmosphere, balloons carry instruments that measure emissions from space, contributing most to astrophysics research. Credit: NASA
Scientists and engineers at Wallops worked with the laser instrument on NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation SaESat)that measured the surface elevation of ice until fall 2009. The publiccould learn more about ICESat and plans for ICESat-2 during the openhouse. Credit: NASA
Perhaps the largest draw was the research airport. U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds lined up on the tarmac before taking off for a demonstration at an air show in Ocean City, Md. Credit: NASA
Wallops’ location also lends itself to Earth science research, described in the center’s roadmap as having “a focus on global climate change and the unique dynamics of the coastal zone environment.”
For example, scientists at Wallops have experimented with autonomous boats to study the ocean and atmosphere, and the interaction between the two environments.
From a distance, visitors saw a more science inclined aircraft, NASA’s very own P-3, just back from a mission in Greenland where it surveyed Arctic ice.
Missed the open house? Learn more about Wallops here.
What do NASA techies do with their spare time? They make rock-n-roll videos. Not the big-hair, booty-shaking, smoke-and-fire kind. They help make rock videos that would make their daytime colleagues proud or jealous, or both.
The rock band OK Go prides itself on creative visual expressions of their music, and they wanted an extra dose of gee-whiz fun for their song “This Too Shall Pass.” In early 2010, the group enlisted the help of Syyn Labs — a self-described “group of creative engineers who twist together art and technology.” The Syyn Labs fraternity included (or ensnared) four staff members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
[Remember to turn your sound on.]
OK Go requested a Rube Goldberg machine as the centerpiece of a video. To borrow from wikipedia, a “Rube Goldberg machine is a deliberately over-engineered machine that performs a very simple task in a very complex fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The name is drawn from American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg.” Think of the classic board game Mousetrap or your favorite chain reactions from Tom & Jerry cartoons.
More than 40 engineers, techies, artists, and circus types spent several months designing, building, rebuilding, and re-setting a machine that took up two floors of a Los Angeles warehouse. The volunteers went to work after work, giving up many nights, weekends, and even some vacation days to build a machine that has drawn more than 13 million views on YouTube.
Chris Becker, a graduate student at the Art Center College of Design and a JPL intern
Heather Knight, a former JPL engineering associate (instrumentation and robotics) who is now preparing to start work on a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University
Eldar Noe Dobrea, Ph.D., a planetary scientist working to study landing sites for the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory.
What on Earth caught up with these rock-n-roll moonlighters to learn more about the machine and video.
What on Earth: What was your role in the creation of the machine, and what was the inspiration behind your piece?
Eldar: My main role was to help design and construct the descent stage (2:06 to 2:28 in the video). The inspiration for the rover was a small Japanese Rube Goldberg machine that had a tiny mock-up of a mouse rover, about the size of a Hot Wheels car. It struck me that since I am representing JPL, we should have a Mars Rover in our machine.
Chris: I helped finish up the sequence of interactions and the filming. I have a couple things that I was involved with, but cannot take complete ownership of any. But during the filming, I redesigned the beginning dominos (0:06-0:18 sec.) and helped set them up between the numerous takes (60+).
Mike: I worked on the tire ramp, mostly focusing on wiring the relay circuits for the lamps that were triggered by the tire. You’ve got to wonder when a mechanical guy does electrical work. A friend from CalTech told me about a band making a music video featuring a Rube-Goldberg machine. Any time I’ve seen one in a movie, like in Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’ve always wanted to make one myself.
Heather: I helped make sure all the modules came together in the first half of the video. I also worked on the intro, the Lego table, and the inflatables. There were a few guiding principles behind the machine. No magic: Mechanisms should be understandable and built from found objects where possible. Small to big: The size of the modules and parts becomes bigger over the course of the video. One take: As in their other videos, the band wanted the entire piece shot in one piece by a single handheld camera.
What on Earth: How many “takes” did it take to get the machine to work?
Mike: Before filming, it took more tries to get things right than anyone could ever have counted. Sometimes I’d spend three or four hours just fiddling with one part to get it right. Even then, it often got changed a couple days later to something else.
Heather: We learned something very important about physics in the process of making this video. It is much harder to make small things reliable. Temperature, friction, even dust all greatly effect the repeatability and timing of the small stuff. The first minute of the video failed at a rate that was tenfold of the rest of the machine. Remembering that rule about getting everything in one shot — if your module is further down the line in the video, you’re in big trouble if it doesn’t work! The machine took half an hour and 20 people to reset.
What on Earth: What’s the funniest or strangest thing that happened on the set?
Chris: Realizing that a number of PhDs built one thing and a clown from a circus built another part. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was there for the same purpose: to build a machine that worked and was fun!
Mike: I helped assemble the sequence between the piano and the shopping cart (1:34 to 1:41). The tetherball pole was supposed to trigger the shopping cart, but when we played the song, the timing was off. The band wanted more delay so that the cart crashed at the end of ‘when the morning comes.’ I added in a sequence using a director’s chair, a piano cover, a waffle iron, and a 10-pound weight to give the necessary delay. Heather’s shoe became part of the sequence, too.
The director’s chair has a rope holding one arm in place. My first thought on holding this rope was to use an umbrella, but Heather told me there were already too many umbrellas in the machine. I rummaged around the warehouse and found a high-heeled shoe sitting around a bunch of junk, and I thought this would make a great holder for the rope. I fastened the shoe to a 2-by-4 with three large wood screws, pried off the rubber tip of the heel, and sanded it a bit to allow the rope to slip off with just the right amount of force.
Then Heather walks up with a friend, who says: ‘Heather, isn’t that your shoe?’ I thought she was kidding, but then Heather said, ‘What are you doing with my shoe?’ I still thought they were making a joke, but then I could tell that Heather was serious and getting mad. Then she started laughing and said: “The machine needs a high-heeled shoe!”
What on Earth: What is your favorite part of the machine?
Eldar: I think the beginning, where the ball bearing jumps out of the speaker when the music begins (0:24) is absolute genius. But the guitar hitting the glasses and taking over the music (1:24) is also quite phenomenal in timing and execution. There were so many things in this machine that blew my mind.
Heather: There are various ‘Easter eggs’ from the band’s other videos that are nestled within the machine. The most obvious is the treadmill video playing on the TV that gets smashed (2:37). But there are also references to the Notre Dame marching band video on the Lego table (1:17) — from the tall Lego drummer to the dancing grass people (I made those!).
Chris: My favorite is the falling piano! That thing took such a beating and was screwed together take after take. It only lasts for a fraction of the video, but it has such comical importance and was triggered after one of the best parts of the video — the clinking glasses.
What on Earth: So if you could quit the day job and get paid for such things, would you?
Mike: I don’t think so because I really like my day job. And even though working on the video was great fun, if it became a full-time job, I don’t think it would seem as fun anymore. The build seemed like a college frat house at times, and that would definitely go away if it became a job.
Eldar: No, I work on missions to other planets! This was fun, but the real deal is at NASA. They say that there is no business like show business. They can keep it.
Postscript: If you want to enter the world of music videos – or of the NASA engineer – you can make your own Rube Goldberg machine for the band’s video contest.
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Bryan Fabbri, Fred Denn, and Bob Arduini typically drive to their jobs at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. But then there are a few days each month when they take the helicopter instead.
The three scientists are part of the small, hands-on team that maintains a suite of meteorological and climate-observing instruments on the Chesapeake Light, a platform lighthouse 15 miles off the Virginia coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
The instruments record air and sea surface temperature, the amount of sunlight and heat absorbed and reflected by the ocean surface, wind speed, aerosol composition, and on and on. The measurements are made to validate the observations made by the Langley-managed Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES).
The CERES satellite instruments have been operating for more than a decade, creating a long-term record of a key driver of Earth’s climate – the balance of incoming and outgoing solar radiation known as the “energy budget.” And the instruments that Fabbri, Denn and Arduini maintain on Chesapeake Light serve to validate the observations CERES makes over the oceans. The project is called COVE (CERES Ocean Validation Experiment) and began along with CERES more than a decade ago.
In a job that usually demands a lot of time crunching data in front of a computer screen, the regular trips to the lighthouse offer a chance for something different. They also highlight a side of science that isn’t often discussed: the grunt work of making sure your instruments are working properly…or haven’t corroded in the humid salt-air…or haven’t blown off the platform with an open-ocean gust. If the sensors aren’t working properly, CERES observations over the ocean would be much more difficult to validate.
It doesn’t hurt that this important work means getting out in the middle of the ocean every now and then.
“You can’t beat that part of it,” Fabbri said. “I get a little stir crazy. I like getting out of the office and out there to work on the instruments. It doesn’t hurt to take the helicopter out.”
— By Patrick Lynch, NASA’s Langley Research Center