2016 marks third consecutive hottest year on record


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Ethiopia, among many other African countries, experienced extreme drought and famine in 2016. (European Comission DG Echo/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 19, 2017

Yet another record was set on Wednesday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released its annual Climate Report.

The report announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record for the third consecutive year. Deke Arndt is the chief of the monitoring group at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C.

Arndt said, “[Last year] was the warmest year on record, beating 2015 by a few hundredths of a degree, and together those two years really blow away the rest of our record.” He continued, “And that doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you take that and you average it all the way around the planet, that’s a big number.”

Rising temperatures were not limited to certain regions. Experts said that some part of every major ocean and every major continent experienced record heat. The Arctic, however, saw some of the most extreme warming. During Fall of 2016, temperatures were a full 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average across large parts of the Arctic ocean.

Scientists say the long-term warming caused by climate change was intensified by the El Niño weather phenomenon during 2015 and 2016. Their combined effect caused drought and famine in Zambia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, among other countries. Now that El Niño is coming to an end, Arndt said that the annual temperature-recording breaking probably will too, but an overall warming trend will continue.

Arndt said, “The long-term warming is driven almost entirely by greenhouse gases. We’ve seen a warming trend related to greenhouse gases for four, five, six decades now.”

The Climate Report, along with a separate analysis by NASA which duplicated its results, were released on the same day that confirmation hearings began for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated by President-elect Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who staunchly supports the fossil fuel industry, is identified as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” in his official biography.

The complete report and a summary of its findings can be found here.

University of Iowa alumnus receives BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award


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University of Iowa Alumnus, James Hansen (Columbia University)
Jenna Ladd | January 17, 2017

University of Iowa Alumnus James Hansen has been honored with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Climate Change category.

The BBVA Foundation promotes, finances, and developments research projects in Biomedicine and Health, Environment, Economy and Society, Basic Sciences and Technology, and Arts and Humanities on behalf of the BBVA Group, a multinational banking group headquartered in Bilbao, Spain.

Hansen received the Frontiers of Knowledge Award along with Japanese climatologist Syukuro Manabe. The two men independently developed the first computation models with the ability to simulate climate behavior, and pioneered the “use of these models to understand and project how Earth’s climate responds to changing concentrations of atmospheric CO2,” said the BBVA’s prize jury.

Originally from Denison, Iowa, Hansen earned his Bachelors, Masters, and PhD from the University of Iowa in Physics. He studied under renowned physicist James VanAllen in the space studies program in the late 1960’s. In 1967, Hansen joined NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. While researching planetary atmospheres at the Institute, Hansen was instrumental in establishing that Venus’ extremely hot temperatures were due to a greenhouse gas effect.

As CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere continued to rise throughout the 1970’s, Hansen shifted his focus and began to study the effect of CO2 on climate. He developed a computational model independently from Manabe, and his conclusions were published in the Journal of Science in 1981. The BBVA prize jury points out that this research was important because it was the first ever to incorporate global temperature data and to predict how global warming would affect other earth processes such as oceanic circulation and flooding.

Manabe said, “I started working with models earlier, but Hansen was the first to use these models to make predictions.”

Hansen served as Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies from 1981-2013. He is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute where he has led the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program since 2013.

Arctic region sees unprecedented warming in 2016


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NASA scientists surveying Arctic melt ponds during the summer months of 2011. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 14, 2016

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented its annual Arctic Report Card on Tuesday, and there’s no cause for celebration.

Scientists say that the Arctic experienced its warmest year ever recorded, and temperatures in the region are rising at “astonishing” rates. Jeremy Mathis is director of NOAA’s Arctic research program, he said, “Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year.”

Scientists explained that warming which used to only have an effect in the summer months is now affecting the Arctic year-round. Mathis added, “The Arctic as a whole is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.”

The report said that the warming of the Arctic can be explained by long-term increases in carbon dioxide emissions and air temperatures as well as natural seasonal and regional variability. These effects are compounded by the feedback loops in the Arctic climate system. Before human-induced climate change, the Arctic region remained cool because large areas of ice and snow reflected much of the sun’s rays back into space. Now that large areas of the ice and snow are melting away, the sun’s rays absorb into the dark land masses and ocean water, causing temperatures to rise more quickly.

Mathis said, “What happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

He explained that warm temperatures in the Arctic could be influencing jet stream patterns in the Northern hemisphere, potentially causing extreme weather in the United States.

Rafe Pomerance, a member of the Polar Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, was not involved with the report card. He said,“The 2016 Arctic Report Card further documents the unraveling of the Arctic and the crumbling of the pillars of the global climate system that the Arctic maintains.”

Collaborative campaign to offer better understanding of high ozone levels along Lake Michigan shoreline


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Areas that exceed EPA’s ozone compliance level are clustered along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. (Space and Science Engineering Center/University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Jenna Ladd | August 31, 2016

Scientists from the University of Iowa will take part in the Lake Michigan Ozone Study 2017 this summer in order to better understand consistently high ozone levels along the Lake Michigan shoreline. 

Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the ozone standard to 70 parts per billion, communities on all sides of the Lake Michigan shoreline have consistently seen ozone levels that are out of compliance with EPA regulation. Before states can work to lower ozone levels into compliance with federal law, they need to test how accurately current ozone models are measuring conditions in the area. The Lake Michigan Ozone Study will work to provide more detailed data that could be used to develop and test new ozone models. The collaborative field campaign consists of scientists from several universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Iowa, and many more as well as professionals from the agencies like the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO).

Dr. Charles Stainer, an associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, explains, “You can make new models, but there’s no data to test them against. I mean there is data, but it’s too limited.” Currently, there are two buoys in the lake that measure ozone levels and about fifteen surface stations near the shoreline that do the same. Stainer says this doesn’t cut it, “What you really need is a full map of ozone and a few vertical profiles where you can fully constrain the wind, the water vapor, the ozone, the nitrogen oxides, and then a few other [chemical] species that would be tell-tale signs that the models are too far in one direction or too far in the other.”

Between May 15th 2017 and June 15th 2017, the campaign will have access to an aircraft from NASA that will be equipped to provide the kind of detailed data they need. The aircraft will likely be based in Madison, Wisconsin. Forecast models for weather, ozone, and other chemical factors will be used daily to determine the aircraft’s flight plan. Stainer said that he expects many of the flights will be between Madison, Wisconsin; Cheboygan, Wisconsin; and Chicago, Illinois in some combination.

Brad Pierce, a NOAA Advanced Satellite Products Branch scientist stationed at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the campaign also hopes to better understand the complex lake breeze system that affects ozone production.“There are these sites along the lake… that are in violation, and they’re not really areas that have a whole lot of industry,” he explained, “The sense is that a lot of this has to do with lake breeze circulations. We want to go out and measure the lake breeze circulation and the transport of ozone precursors – the emissions that end up producing ozone – in the springtime when this lake breeze is most dominant.”

The campaign is still looking for additional funding that would expand ground measurement sites with high-tech, real-time monitors from various atmospheric chemistry groups from around the country.

In short, Stanier said, “The existing data you can test whether the models predict ozone too high or too low, but this advanced data set would enable you to say why.”

Iowa Flood Center partners with NASA to improve soil moisture measurement


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An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive Satellite from outer space. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA)
Jenna Ladd | August 25, 2016

Students and researchers at the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) spent this summer working with NASA on a research project aiming to better understand and measure soil moisture.

The IFC team, based at the University of Iowa, is working to compare soil moisture data provided by NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite with data gathered on the ground by IFC’s soil-moisture monitoring sensors. Researchers are specifically comparing soil moisture data from the South Fork watershed near Ames, a tributary of the Iowa River. IFC’s ground instrumentation provides real-time soil moisture measurements to farmers and researchers, while NASA’s satellite collects information in a different way. Put simply, the SMAP satellite views the Earth surface at a specific microwave-radiation wavelength that allows it to see through vegetation. The more water that is held in the soil, the darker it appears to the satellite. NASA is comparing this data against that which is measured on the ground by IFC to determine whether the water held inside of crops affects the accuracy of satellite imaging.

“As with many remote-sensing products, there is a continued need for evaluation,” says IFC Director Witold Krajewski. Validation of the satellite is a two part process. Researchers began by analyzing NASA’s satellite data from the end of May through early June, when crops were only beginning to emerge from the soil. During this first phase, IFC researchers and graduate students also set out to install and maintain soil-moisture instruments on the ground. They took a second look at soil moisture in early August when corn, soy, and other agricultural crops densely cover the ground in order to determine the satellite’s accuracy.

In addition to these measurements, IFC is taking a closer look the relationship between rainfall and soil moisture. The research team is using two mobile X-band polarimetric radars to study rainfall with increased temporal and spatial precision. IFC is also gathering data using several rainfall measuring tools provided by NASA. Krajewski explains, “Understanding the rainfall variability gives you an idea how much water gets into the soil and how it dries out.”

IFC is working with research partners at Iowa State University as well as those from universities and institutions across the country.

 

NASA astronauts consume lettuce grown in space


The International Space Station orbits above the United States's east coast in 2012. (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr)
The International Space Station orbits above the east coast of the United States in 2012. (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | August 12, 2015

Astronauts in the International Space Station did something this week that’s never been done before: grow and eat food in space.

The astronauts on Expedition 44 harvested red romaine lettuce from NASA’s experimental plant growth system called Veg-01. This system consists of a “microgravity environment in which plants grow from seed ‘pillows’ under primarily red and blue LED lights.” The first “pillows” were activated and nurtured by the crew on Expedition 39 in May 2014. These plants grew for 33 days in space before returning to earth and undergoing a food safety analysis at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The current crew will eat half of the lettuce harvested and preserve the other half for scientific analysis when the crew returns to earth. NASA scientists cite that developing methods for sustainable food production in space will be crucial in the agency’s Journey to Mars mission, which aims to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

“The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits. I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario,” NASA Project Scientist Gioia Massa said in a statement.

The Expedition 44 crew consists of astronauts from Japan, Russia, and the United States. The crew is expected to return to earth in December.

NASA graphic paints vivid picture of carbon dioxide’s movement through the atmosphere


Screenshot of a NASA simulation of carbon dioxide movements in the atmosphere.
Screenshot of a NASA simulation of carbon dioxide movements in the atmosphere.

A new, high-resolution computer model from NASA offers a stunning view of how carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas released through human activity, moves through Earth’s atmosphere.

The video (below) shows plumes of gas swirling from concentrated sources through the rest of the atmosphere as winds disperse them. What’s interesting to note is the visible differences in distribution between industrialized areas in the northern hemisphere and those further south. Carbon dioxide is emitted mainly through the burning of fossil fuels.

The NASA model is the first to simulate carbon dioxide measurements in such high definition. In addition to ground-based carbon-release measurements, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 in July to make even more detailed, space-based observations. While scientists have plenty of data about the levels of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere (the gas’s concentration exceeded 400 parts per million across most of the northern hemisphere for the first time in modern history this year), relatively little is known about the paths carbon dioxide takes as moves from source to the atmosphere and to absorption points in forests and oceans.

The visualization was produced by an advanced computer model called GEOS-5, which simulated the behavior of Earth’s atmosphere based on measurements of carbon dioxide and other gases from May 2005 to June 2007.