Archive for the ‘News Roundup’ Category

Research Roundup: The Latest on Methane

July 11th, 2016 by Adam Voiland

Global atmospheric concentrations of methane are rising—along with scientific scrutiny of this potent greenhouse gas. In March 2016, we published a feature story that took a broad look at why methane matters. Since that story came out, several new studies have been published. But first, some broader context from that feature story…

The long-term, global trend for atmospheric methane is clear. The concentration of the gas was relatively stable for hundreds of thousands of years, but then started to increase rapidly around 1750. The reason is simple: increasing human populations since the Industrial Revolution have meant more agriculture, more waste, and more fossil fuel production. Over the same period, emissions from natural sources have stayed about the same.


The Zeppelin Observatory in Svalbard monitors methane concentrations. It is one of several stations that helps scientists assemble a global picture of atmospheric aerosols and pollutants. Photo courtesy of AGAGE.

If you focus on just the past five decades—when modern scientific tools have been available to detect atmospheric methane—there have been fluctuations in methane levels that are harder to explain. Since 2005, methane has been on the rise, and no one is quite sure why. Some scientists think tropical wetlands have gotten a bit wetter and are releasing more gas. Others point to the natural gas fracking boom in North America and its sometimes leaky infrastructure. Others wonder if changes in agriculture may be playing a role.


A combination of historical ice core data and air monitoring instruments reveals a consistent trend: global atmospheric methane concentrations have risen sharply in the past 2000 years. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from the EPA.)

The stakes are high when it comes to sorting out what is going on with methane. Global temperatures in 2014 and 2015 were warmer than at any other time in the modern temperature record, which dates back to 1880. The most recent decade was the warmest on the record.  The current year, 2016, is already on track to be the warmest. And carbon emissions — including methane — are central to that rise.


Atmospheric methane has continued to increase, though the rate of the increase has varied considerably over time and puzzled experts. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from NOAA.)


Isotope Data Suggests Fossil Fuels Not to Blame for Increase
Methane bubbles up from swamps and rivers, belches from volcanoes, rises from wildfires, and seeps from the guts of cows and termites (where is it made by microbes). Human settlements are awash with the gas. Methane leaks silently from natural gas and oil wells and pipelines, as well as coal mines. It stews in landfills, sewage treatment plants, and rice paddies. With so many different sources, many scientists who study methane are hesitant to pin the rising concentration of the gas on a particular source until more data is collected and analyzed.

However, an April 2016 study led by a researcher from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research came down squarely on one side. After measuring the isotopic composition, or chemical structure, of carbon trapped in ice cores and archived air samples from a global network of monitoring stations, the scientists concluded that blaming the rise in atmospheric methane on fossil fuel production makes little sense.

Screenshot 2016-07-08 16.52.25

Chart from Schaefer et al.


When methane has extra neutrons in its chemical structure, it is said to be a “heavier” isotope; fewer neutrons make for “lighter” methane. Different processes produce different proportions of heavy and light methane. Lighter isotopes of a carbon (meaning they have a lower ratio of Carbon 13 to Carbon 12 than the atmosphere), for instance, are usually associated with methane recovered from fossil fuels.

As shown in the chart above, the authors observed a decrease in the isotopes associated with fossil fuels at all latitudes beginning in 2006. But at the same time, global concentrations of methane (blue line in the top chart) have risen. “The finding is unexpected, given the recent boom in unconventional gas production and reported resurgence in coal mining and the Asian economy. Either food production or climate-sensitive natural emissions are the most probable causes of the current methane increase,” the authors noted.

If fossil fuel production is not responsible for increasing concentrations of atmospheric methane, than what is? The authors say that more research is needed to be certain, but that there are indications that the agricultural sector in southeast Asia (especially rice cultivation and livestock production) is likely responsible.

Large Increase in U.S. Emissions over Past Decade
A March 2016 study led by Harvard researchers based on surface measurements and satellite observations  detected a 30 percent increase in methane emissions from the United States between 2002 and 2014 — an amount the authors argue could account for between 30 to 60 percent of the global growth in atmospheric methane during the past decade.

Screenshot 2016-07-08 15.47.38

Chart from Turner et al.

The most significant increase (in red, as observed with Japan’s Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite) occurred in the central United States. However, the authors avoid making claims about why. “The U.S. has seen a 20 percent increase in oil and gas production and a nine-fold increase in shale gas production from 2002 to 2014, but the spatial pattern of the methane increase seen by GOSAT does not clearly point to these sources. More work is needed to attribute the observed increase to specific sources.”

First Time Satellite View of Methane Leaking from a Single Facility
For the first time, an instrument on a spacecraft has measured the methane emissions leaking from a single facility on Earth’s surface. The observation, detailed in a June 2016 study, was made by the hyperspectral spectrometer Hyperion on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite. On three separate overpasses, Hyperion detected methane leaking from the Aliso Canyon gas leak, the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

“The percentage of atmospheric methane produced through human activities remains poorly understood. Future satellite instruments with much greater sensitivity can help resolve this question by surveying the biggest sources around the world and helping us to better understand and address this unknown factor in greenhouse gas emissions,” David Thompson, an atmospheric chemist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an author of the study. For instance, the upcoming Environmental Mapping and Analysis Program (EnMAP) is a satellite mission (managed by the German Aerospace Center) that will provide new hyperspectral data for scientists for monitoring methane.

As detailed in a July 2016 study, scientists and engineering are also working on a project called GEO-CAPE that will result in the deployment of a new generation of methane-monitoring instruments on geostationary satellites that can monitor methane sources in North and South America on a more continuous basis. Current methane sensors operate in low-Earth orbit, and thus take several days or even weeks before they can observe the same methane hot spot. For instance, EO-1 detected the Aliso Canyon plume just three times between December 29, 2015 and February 14, 2016, due to challenges posed by cloud cover and the lighting angle. A geostationary satellite would have detected it on a much more regular basis.

Fires in Indonesia: Perspective from the Ground

December 10th, 2015 by Adam Voiland
photo 1

Aftermath of a fire in peatlands on the southwest border of Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan. (Photo courtesy of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program).

Cassie Freund is the program director of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program, an orangutan protection project in Indonesia. While working on our latest feature story, we asked her what life was like in West Kalimantan during the 2015 fire season, when smoke blanketed parts of Borneo and Sumatra. Peat deposits, El Niño weather, and agricultural activity converged to produce prodigious fires and planet-warming emissions. Read Seeing Through the Smoky Pall: Observations from a Grim Indonesian Fire Season to learn more.

How has the smoke affected you?

I live in the Ketapang district of West Kalimantan. We had some serious fires here, but it wasn’t as bad as in Central Kalimantan, which was basically the epicenter of the disaster. Breathing the smoke wasn’t pleasant, and I didn’t dare open a window or a door in my house because it would just permeate everything.

The smoke also seriously disrupted some of my travel plans. There were no flights into or out of my town for at least a month, so we had to rely on boats or long-distance travel by car.

The smoke also disrupted my work. I do lot in the community and in schools, but September and October were quiet months for us because the schools were not in session. It was too dangerous for students. Adults were not available to participate in our conservation activities and meetings because they either had to stay in the field and guard their crops from fire, or didn’t want to be outside more then necessary.

Have you had health problems as a result of the haze? Do you know people who have?

I had a cough for several weeks. I do know people whose children were sick, and one woman I spoke to has a three-month old baby that she has not taken outside at all because of the smoke. One problem was that there just weren’t enough good masks to go around. During the worst of the pollution, normal surgical masks aren’t enough. But many people don’t own the N95 masks that block out the smoke particles.

Can you describe how the air smelled and tasted during the worst of the burning?

Acrid is the best word to describe it. Peat fires have a pretty distinctive smell. The smoke just goes right to the back of your throat, and makes your eyes sting. People here describe it has having mata pedas, which translates to “spicy eyes.” The smoke looks like morning fog, but it doesn’t dissipate.

photo 3

A peat fire burns vegetation in the Sungai Laur area of Ketapang district, West Kalimantan. (Photo courtesy of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program).

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am afraid that the next huge hot spotsnot this year, but maybe in the futurewill be in Papua. And there, as someone has pointed out to me, there are no charismatic species to get people riled up and to motivate them to donate to conservation. There’s just peat. Most of the peatlands there are still intact, too, and they absolutely need to be protected.

You can read blog posts by Cassie Freund about the fires here and here.

The first thing to know about the new study authored by NOAA scientists about the global warming “slowdown” or “hiatus” over the past decade is that the new analysis gets pretty deep into the details and will mainly be of interest to specialists who study climate science. In fact, for most casual readers, it doesn’t affect the overall story much at all and shouldn’t change what you think about global warming.

As I see it, interest in climate science is a bit like interest in cars. The vast majority of people couldn’t care less about the details of how their car works. They don’t know the difference between a caliper and a camshaft, and they don’t really care to know. They just want the car to run smoothly. Then there is that small but enthusiastic minority — the aficionados and grease monkeys — who not only can name every part of their engine, but who also want to be able to take it apart and fix it without the help of a mechanic. This latest study is really for the grease monkeys of climate science, the folks who know the difference between GISTEMP, HadCRUT4, and can tell you what ERSST stands for without googling it.

For the casual readers among you, here is the extent of what you’ll probably want to know about the study: the NOAA scientists who assess global temperatures have updated their analysis so that it now includes some new data that they think offers a slight improvement. The key thing to understand — for casual readers and data geeks alike — is that the changes are quite subtle. Don’t believe me? Just look at the figure at the top of this page, which shows how the old version of the NOAA analysis compares to the new one. Their newly corrected global temperature trend is the black line. The earlier version of the trend is the red line.

If you look closely, you will see the changes make the temperatures appear slightly warmer in the last decade, and thus make the idea that there has been a slowdown or “hiatus” in warming less credible. Still, that graph also makes it abundantly clear that the changes are quite minor when you look at the bigger picture. As Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, put it in a post on the Real Climate blog: “The ‘selling point’ of the paper is that with the updates to data and corrections, the trend over the recent decade or so is now significantly positive. This is true, but in many ways irrelevant.” As he has pointed out many times (as has this blog), it’s the long term trend that matters more than a handful of years here or there.

Still, there is plenty to dig into about the study for climate data geeks. The NOAA team makes the case that they’ve improved their analysis by making some updates to both the sea surface temperature and land surface temperature datasets that are at the core of the analysis. Specifically, they have included the data from the International Surface Temperature Initiative database, which more than doubles the number of weather stations available for the analysis. They have also updated the sea surface temperature by turning to a new version of the Extended Reconstructed Sea Surface Temperature dataset, which does a better job of correcting for differences in temperature measurements collected by floating buoys versus ships. Buoys are known for getting slightly cooler — and more accurate — readings than ships, but ships were the main way data was collected prior to the 1970s. The NOAA team also took a fresh look at how ship-based measurements taken with wooden buckets as opposed to engine intake thermometers compare, and how the differences might affect the overall analysis.

Not enough detail for you? If you want even more info about the study and want to know how the NOAA team came to its conclusion that there has not been a slowdown in warming over the last decade or so, you will find links to a few places where you can start your reading below the chart.

no slow down in global warming

+ The full study as published in Science:

+ Commentary by Gavin Schmidt:

+ NOAA Press Release about the study:

+ Doug McNeall (of the UK Met Office) commentary about the study:

+Victor Venema (University of Bonn) commentary:

Nature news article about the study:

+Peter Thorne (International Surface Temperature Initiative) commentary:

+ Jay Lawrlmore (NOAA) commentary about the study

+ Washington Post article about the study:

Picturing Science: December 17, 2014

December 17th, 2014 by Adam Voiland

Nighttime lights around many major U.S. cities shine 20 to 50 percent brighter during Christmas and New Year’s when compared to light output during the rest of the year.  Full story. Related.


Kilauea lava flow burning through forest near Pahoa, Hawaii. Full story. Related.


Yes, that’s a NASA plane without wings. Its top speed: 1,064 miles per hour. (Mach 1.6).  Full story.


We like to show you snazzy pictures from the field and from space, but this is what science really looks like. AGU 2014 is on. Full story. Related.


The occurrence of summertime fog in the eastern Pacific declined by 33 percent over the course of the 20th century, a recent study found. Full story. Related.


“Any thunderstorm can produce gamma rays, even those that appear to be so weak a meteorologist wouldn’t look twice at them,” said Themis Chronis of the University of Alabama. Full story. Related.


“Venus sits in the background of the Earth’s atmosphere.” — Via @AstroTerry.  Original Tweet.




AGU 2014: The Buzz

December 16th, 2014 by Kathryn Hansen

A record 25,000 researchers and exhibitors descended on San Francisco this week for the 2014 meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). That number of attendees translates to a tremendous amount of Earth science being discussed via presentations and posters, and we can’t possibly cover it all in this blog. Fortunately, this buzz word graphic posted by @AGU_Eos helped us sort what attendees are talking about, at least on twitter at #AGU14.

agu buzz words

Drought was certainly a hot topic, particularly California’s multi-year episode. NASA scientists announced at a press briefing that it would take about 11 trillion gallons of water (42 cubic kilometers)—or 1.5 times the maximum volume of the largest U.S. reservoir—to recover from the current drought. The calculation, based on data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, is the first of its kind. Read the full story here.

The buzz word “ice” probably stems from the abundance of research on Greenland that was presented on December 15. Scientists using ground-based and airborne radar instruments found that liquid water can now persist throughout the year on the perimeter of the ice sheet; it might help kick off melting in the spring and summer. Read more about those studies here. Look, too, at this new study that used satellite data to get a better picture of how the ice sheet is losing mass.

And finally, take a minute to browse some of the cool photos presented by Anders Bjørk of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, which included the portrait of Arctic explorers (below) and this image pair demonstrating glacial retreat in Greenland.


NASA Earth Science in the News

December 10th, 2014 by Patrick Lynch

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the NASA Earth Science in the News column, published in the November/December issue of The Earth Observer newsletter. You can download the current issue here.

America’s Tiny Four Corners Region is an Outsized Methane Hotspot; One small spot in the U.S. Southwest is surprisingly the producer of the largest concentration of methane (CH4) gas seen across the nation. Levels of CH4 over the Four Corners region are more than triple the standard groundbased estimate of the greenhouse gas, as reported in a point study of satellite data by scientists at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of Michigan. CH4 is a heat-trapping gas whose increasing quantities in the atmosphere have fueled concerns about global climate change. The methane “hotspot,” seen on the map as a small splotch—see map above—measures approximately 6475 km2 (2500 mi2) at the junction of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. For scale, the state of Arizona is about 292,668 km2 (113,000 mi2). But the area generated an annual 0.59 million metric tons of methane between 2003 and 2009—about as much CH4 as the entire coal, oil, and gas industries of the U.K. give off each year.

The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan


Scientists Say Ozone Layer is Recovering; Associated Press. Earth’s protective ozone layer is beginning to recover from its previously reduced levels, largely because of the phase-out since the 1980s of certain chemicals used in refrigerants and aerosol cans, a U.N. scientific panel reported. Scientists said the development demonstrates that when the world’s peoples come together, we can counteract a brewing ecological crisis. For the first time in 35 years, scientists were able to confirm a statistically significant and sustained increase in stratospheric ozone, which shields the planet from solar radiation that causes skin cancer, crop damage, and other problems. From 2000 to 2013, ozone levels climbed 4% in the key mid-northern latitudes at about 48 km (30 mi) above Earth’s surface, said scientist Paul Newman [NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)].

Deep Ocean Hasn’t Warmed Measurably in a Decade, Says NASA; The Weather Channel. Deep below the ocean surface, there’s a place global warming hasn’t yet reached. According to a study published on October 5, 2014, in Nature Climate Change, scientists at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have found that over the last decade the deepest part of the world’s ocean has not warmed measurably. The scientists analyzed ocean temperatures from between 2005 and 2013 and found that below a depth of approximately 2 km (~1.2 mi)—roughly halfway to the bottom at this location—the global ocean has not warmed nearly as quickly as the top half. The scientists collected the temperature data using both satellite measurements and data from the Argo array, a network of some 3500 floating probes scattered throughout the world that measure ocean temperatures and salinity. “The sea level is still rising,” said study coauthor Josh Willis [JPL] in a news release. “We’re just trying to understand the nitty-gritty details.”

Antarctic Sea Ice Level Breaks Record, NASA Says; Sea ice surrounding Antarctica is at an all-time high, even as global temperature averages continue to climb. NASA reports that ice formation in the continent’s southern oceans peaked this year, breaking ice-measuring satellite records dating back to the late 1970s. For the first time since 1979, on September 19, 2014, Antarctic sea ice extent exceeded ~20 million km2 (~7.7 million mi2) whereas the average maximum extent between 1981 and 2010 was ~19 million km2 (~7.3 million mi2). Despite this trend, sea ice as a whole is decreasing on a global scale. Researchers say that, just like global warming, trends have different outcomes in different parts of the world; not every location with sea ice will experience ice loss or gain. “When we think about global warming we would expect intuitively that ice should also be declining in the Antarctic region as in the Arctic,” explained senior research scientist Josefino Comiso [GSFC]. “But station and satellite data currently show that the trends in surface temperatures are most positive in the Arctic, while in the Antarctic region the trends are a mixture of positive and negative trends,” he said, adding that cooling and declining sea surface temperatures could also contribute to a “more rapid advance at the ice edge.”

1934’s Dust Bowl Drought Was the Worst in a Thousand Years for U.S.; The drought of 1934 wasn’t just bad, it was the worst. That’s the finding of a reconstruction of North American drought history over the past 1000 years, done by scientists from NASA and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Their study, published in the October 17 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, concludes the drought of 1934, during the Dust Bowl years in the North American Plains, was 30% more severe than the next worst, which occurred in 1580, NASA scientists said. The scientists used tree ring records from 1000 to 2005 along with modern observations. They found that the 1934 drought extended across over 71% of western North America, compared with almost 60% during the 2012 drought. “It was the worst by a large margin,” said lead author of the study Ben Cook [NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies—Climate Scientist]. The scientists found two main reasons: a winter high-pressure system over the West Coast that blocked precipitation and spring dust storms that suppressed rainfall.

GRACE Spacecraft Changed the Way Groundwater was Measured; CBS’ 60 Minutes. Leslie Stahl hosted a segment on California’s groundwater issues. The segment described the difficulty in sampling groundwater levels until NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) spacecraft was launched. Mike Watkins [JPL—GRACE Project Scientist] described how GRACE “can tell whether an area has gained water weight or lost it.” Jay Famiglietti [University of California, Irvine] said that he thought the method was “complete nonsense” until he started examining the data, which changed his position. The broadcast noted that Famiglietti was so worried by what he saw in the data that he is working “to alert governments and academics to the problem.”

Earth’s Disappearing Groundwater

November 5th, 2014 by Adam Voiland


Maybe you have heard people call Earth “the water planet.”  The nickname is well-deserved. As this mosaic of images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite conveys so well, the majority of Earth’s surface is covered by either liquid or frozen water.  The atmosphere is awash with water as well. One satellite-based data set estimates that about 60 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by clouds (composed of water and ice droplets) at any given time.

Earth is home to yet another type of water—groundwater—which includes all the fresh water stored underground in soil and porous rock aquifers. Though groundwater is often forgotten because it’s not visible, more than two billion people rely on it as their primary water source. 

With drought afflicting several parts of the world, and with aggressive use of groundwater in many agricultural regions, this precious water resource is under serious strain, warns NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory hydrologist James Famiglietti. In a commentary published by Nature Climate Change in October 2014, Famiglietti wrote:

In many parts of the world, in particular in the dry, mid-latitudes, far more water is used than is available on an annual, renewable basis. Precipitation, snowmelt, and streamflow are no longer enough to supply the multiple, competing demands for society’s water needs. Because the gap between supply and demand is routinely bridged with non-renewable groundwater, even more so during drought, groundwater supplies in some major aquifers will be depleted in a matter of decades. The myth of limitless water and the free-for-all mentality that has pervaded groundwater use must now come to an end.


Image by J.T. Reager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Most of the major aquifers in the world’s arid and semi-arid zones—the parts of the world that rely most heavily on groundwater—are experiencing rapid rates of depletion because of water use by farms. As shown in the chart above—based on data collected by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)—this includes include the North China Plain, Australia’s Canning Basin, the Northwest Sahara Aquifer System, the Guarani Aquifer in South America, the High Plains and Central Valley aquifers of the United States, and the aquifers beneath northwestern India and the Middle East.

The situation is looking particularly grim in California, a state currently suffering from extreme drought. The extent of the drought is visible in the series of GRACE maps of dry season (September-November) water storage anomalies shown below. Red areas show the height of the water in comparison to a 2005-2010 average. California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have lost roughly 15 cubic kilometers (4 cubic miles) of total water per year since 2011 — more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually. Over half of the water losses are due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley, according to Famiglietti.


Image by Felix Landerer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The first step to managing the globe’s groundwater problem is to accept that we have one, Famiglietti recommends. And when societies are ready to look for solutions, the first place they’ll have to turn is the agricultural sector. “Agriculture accounts for nearly 80 percent of water use globally, and at least half of the irrigation water used is groundwater,” he wrote. “Even modest gains in agricultural efficiency will result in tremendous volumes of groundwater saved, or of water available for the environment or other human uses such as municipalities, energy production, industry and economic growth.”

Read the full commentary here.  You can read news reports about Famiglietti’s article from Mashable, the Financial Times, and Discovery News. Read more about observing groundwater from space in “The Gravity of Groundwater.” Watch Famiglietti give a TEDx talk about groundwater losses below.

NASA Earth Science in the News

September 16th, 2014 by Patrick Lynch

2005 2011

These images compare averaged yearly nitrogen dioxide concentrations over the Ohio River Valley region from 2005 [top] to 2011 [bottom]. Image credit: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio/T. Schindler

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the NASA Earth Science in the News column published in the May/June issue of The Earth Observer newsletter. You can download the current issue here.

See NASA’s Dazzling Proof that U.S. Air Quality Has Improved, Summer in the U.S. is the time of year when humidity skyrockets, air stagnates, and the air quality deteriorates, especially downwind of the coal-fired power plants and manufacturing plants of the Ohio Valley. During hazy and hot summer days in the big cities along the Interstate 95 corridor, the sky often looks like the visual equivalent of white noise—with the horizon indistinguishable from the milky sky. Yet air quality has actually been steadily improving over the past few years, largely thanks to the Clean Air Act, along with a drop in coal use and dramatic changes in vehicle fuel efficiency and emissions. NASA has released beautiful images demonstrating that people in major U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York are breathing less nitrogen oxide. The data come from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) aboard NASA’s Aura satellite. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the six common pollutants the EPA regulates to protect human health. It can harm the respiratory system and also combines with other pollutants to form smog. Nitrogen dioxide is mostly produced by burning gasoline in vehicle engines and from burning coal. “While our air quality has certainly improved over the last few decades, there is still work to do—ozone and particulate matter are still problems,” said atmospheric scientist Bryan Duncan.

Water Weight Used to Calculate the Amount of Snow in California with GPS, Scientific American. Water weighs about 8.3 pounds per gallon (1 kg/L). Now, scientists have developed a way to use water’s weight to measure just how much snow is covering mountains in the western U.S. In states like California, currently in the midst of a crippling drought, the more water managers know about how much snow is in the mountains, the better they can plan for the summer months ahead. More accurate information about such snowpack can help these managers and hydrologists plan for how to fill reservoirs, how much water they might have available during the dry season, and how dry the soils might be during fire season. They’ll also get a better fix on future levels of reservoirs for hydroelectric power generation. Donald Argus, a research scientist and geophysicist at JPL, recently published a study outlining the new technique in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. If scientists know the height of a piece of land in summertime, and the height when snow covers it, they can use the difference to calculate how much snow is sitting on the mountains. The technique uses a dense network of global positioning system (GPS) sites scattered across the Western U.S.

Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans From Polar Melt, The New York Times. A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported on May 12, 2014. If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet (about 3 meters) or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries. Global warming caused by the human-driven release of greenhouse gases has helped to destabilize the ice sheet, though other factors may also be involved, the scientists said. The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the twenty-first century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly. The West Antarctic ice sheet sits in a bowl-shaped depression, with the base of the ice below sea level. Warm ocean water is causing the ice sitting along the rim of the bowl to thin and retreat. As the front edge of the ice pulls away from the rim and enters deeper water, it can retreat much faster than before. In a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, a team led by glaciologist Eric Rignot used satellite and airborne measurements to document an accelerating retreat of six glaciers draining into the Amundsen Sea region. With updated mapping of the terrain beneath the ice sheet, the team was able to rule out the presence of any mountains or hills significant enough to slow the retreat.

NASA Places Radar in North Carolina to Study Rain in Smokies, Washington Times. NASA placed two radars on land in Rutherford County, North Carolina, for a field campaign to study rainfall in the Great Smoky Mountains. The campaign ran from May 1 to June 15, 2014. “We have set up rain gauges and radars across the area to learn more about how weather and rain systems behave in the mountains,” said research scientist David Wolff. The campaign was designed to validate data from the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission’s Core Observatory, which launched in February 2014. The science team expected to end the six-week campaign with detailed data to improve their understanding of both the fundamental sciences of mountain rainfall and how best to estimate rainfall using satellite observations over remote and rugged regions. Scientists will use what they learn to improve weather predictions and flood warnings. Team members will take a break after the summer and are scheduled to travel to Seattle, Washington, in 2015-16 to measure winter weather there.

NASA ‘Balloon Campaign’ Goes to Australia, International Business Times. NASA and the University of Wyoming teamed up with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) in Darwin, Australia, for a balloon-based campaign designed to better understand the composition and behavior of volcanic plumes. The Kelud Ash (KlAsh) experiment involved launching a series of balloons to take measurements of emissions from the volcano in Indonesia. Mt. Kelud sent small droplets of sulfuric acid—as ash particles and sulfate aerosol—up to 15 mi (25 km) above Earth when it erupted in February this year. Principal investigator Duncan Fairlie said: “The purpose is to better characterize particle sizes, composition, and optical properties from a relatively fresh volcanic plume in the stratosphere.” The two-week balloon campaign, which started on May 14, 2014, launched small balloon payloads over the Indian Ocean from the bushes of Darwin territory. Fairlie said the team sampled the volcanic plumes at an altitude of around 12 miles (20 kilometers) in all flights.

Earth Science In the News

June 17th, 2014 by Patrick Lynch

The magnitude of fluorescence portrayed in this visualization prompted researchers to take a closer look at the productivity of the U.S. Corn Belt. The glow represents fluorescence measured from land plants in early July, over a period from 2007 to 2011.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the NASA Science in the News column published in the May/June issue of the Earth Observer. You can download the current issue of the newsletter here.

Under the Summer Sun, the Corn Belt Is the Most Biologically Productive Place on Earth, Smithsonian Magazine. Rainforests, whether in the Amazon, Southeast Asia, or Central America, are hotspots of organic productivity. Fueled by abundant rain and a reliable stream of nutrients, the Amazon blooms year-round. For a brief period each summer, however, the ingenuity of humankind trumps even the mighty rainforests at biological production. A group of researchers, including Christian Frankenberg and Joanna Joiner have determined that during peak growing season, the Midwest U.S. Corn Belt is the most productive land on Earth. In other words, there’s more photosynthesis going on here than in the Amazon. When plant cells photosynthesize, part of the energy they produce is emitted as fluorescent light. By measuring the strength of this fluorescence from space, scientists can get a measure of plant productivity.

Arctic Melting Is Lasting Longer and Affecting More Ice, The Arctic melt season is averaging five days longer with each passing decade, a new study by NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center reveals. More ice-free days mean the water (which is darker than the surrounding ice) is exposed longer and can absorb more of the Sun’s heat, further increasing the melting rate and extent. The study shows that thickness of the Arctic ice cap has shrunk by as much as 1.2 meters (4 feet). By the end of this century, scientists believe the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free during the entire summer. This news came in the same week that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its own report on global warming. Data were collected with NASA’s (long-deceased) Nimbus-7 Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer and instruments onboard Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft. Scientists can measure the changes in the ice’s microwave emissivity using a formula developed by co-author Thorsten Markus.

NASA Study Projects Higher Temperatures Despite Recent Slowdown in Global Warming, Bloomberg. Despite a recent slowdown in the rate of global warming, a study by Drew Shindell suggests global temperatures will likely continue to rise in coming decades, on track with earlier estimates of increasing temperatures. Shindell and his colleagues sought to reconcile different estimates for the Earth’s climate sensitivity, or how temperatures change in response to changes in radiative forcing. Some studies estimate low climate sensitivity, based on the assumption that global average temperatures would respond uniformly to increases of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions. But the NASA study showed that global temperatures are more sensitive to changes in aerosols and ozone in the atmosphere than was thought. This higher sensitivity could mean a larger and faster temperature response. Shindell said the study’s findings could have “a really profound impact” on the amount of greenhouse gas emission reductions needed for countries to meet an international goal of limiting temperature increases to 2°C (3.6 °F). “I wish it weren’t so,” said Shindell, “but forewarned is fore-armed.” Global temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.12 °C (0.22 °F) per decade since 1951, according to the NASA GISS temperature record. This trend has been interrupted since 1998, as since then the rate of warming has slowed to only 0.05 °C (0.09 °F) per decade—even as atmospheric CO2 continues to rise.

Amazon Rainforest Breathes In More Than It Breathes Out, A new study further confirms that pristine Amazon forests pull in more CO2 than they put back into the atmosphere, helping to reduce global warming by lowering the planet’s greenhouse gas levels. When scientists account for the world’s CO2, their totals suggest some of the greenhouse gas disappears into land-based carbon traps. These natural carbon sinks, such as forests, absorb and store CO2, helping to lower the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. To better measure the carbon flux from the Amazon, researchers tracked tree death throughout the Amazon. Lead study author Fernando Espírito-Santo combined satellite data, airborne lidar data (i.e., laser surface imagery), and tree counts to compare carbon consumed by living trees with emissions from dead trees. Espírito-Santo found that dead Amazonian trees emit an estimated 1.9 billion tons (1.7 billion metric tons) of carbon to the atmosphere each year. In a normal year, the Amazon rainforest absorbs about 2.2 billion tons (2 billion metric tons) of CO2, studies suggest. The study also found that big storms that can blow down millions of trees at once barely budge the forest’s carbon output.

Fall AGU, Tornado Intensity, and More

December 13th, 2013 by Adam Voiland


It’s that Time of Year
Monarch butterflies congregate in central Mexico every winter. Sandhill cranes stop  at a small section of the Platte River in Nebraska every spring. And earth and planetary scientists congregate in San Francisco each December.

More than ten thousand people converged on Moscone Center this week for the the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a hectic five-day event full of lectures, poster presentations, networking lunches, press conferences, and plenty of coffee and beer. For updates from the meeting, check out Dave Petley at the Landslide blog, Will Morgan at Polluting the Internet, the Barometer Podcast, Real Climate, and Journeys of Dr. G from Laura Guretin.

Tracking Tornado Intensity
Are tornadoes getting stronger?  It’s a complicated and controversial topic among meteorologists, but Florida State University’s James Elsner thinks the answer is probably yes (with an emphasis on probably). Elsner came to that conclusion after analyzing the damage caused by every tornado to hit between 1994 and 2006. “If I were a betting man, I’d say tornadoes are getting stronger,” he noted  during a talk the American Geophysical Union meeting this week. But when asked directly at a press conference whether they were, he resorted to caveats, according to Scientific American. “I’m not doing this [work] to establish the future intensity of tornadoes,” he explained, but to establish a method that someday could indeed determine if the storms are becoming more powerful. For more on the muddled topic of tornado intensity trends, see this detailed post from DotEarth’s Andrew Revkin.

Arctic Cyclones Galore

Remember that strong Arctic storm that whirled near the north pole back in the summer of 2012? A new analysis shows that there are more of them than we thought—40 percent more. From 2000 to 2010, about 1,900 cyclones churned across the top of the world each year, leaving warm water and air in their wakesand melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. “We now know there were more cyclones than previously thought, simply because we’ve gotten better at detecting them,” one of the authors explained. “We can’t yet tell if the number of cyclones is increasing or decreasing, because that would take a multidecade view.” Read the press release.

Data Visualization AMA
If you missed the Reddit Ask Me Anything with Earth Observatory art director Robert Simmon, you can find the transcript here.

From Facebook
We post items every day to facebook (and not everything that goes onto Facebook makes it onto our site).  One of the highlights this week was a spectacular montage of astronaut photography put together by film student David Peterson. Look for Don Pettit’s head peering out from the cupola at the end end of the video. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself watching it again. And again. And again.