Greenland Aquifer Expedition: We’re off again!

March 24th, 2015 by Lora Koenig

Hello and welcome to the third installment of the Greenland Aquifer Team blog. We are back at it again this year to study the water hidden below the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. For background, if you have a lot of reading time, you can check out all of the blog posts (including those from previous years) here, or for a quick synopses check out the press release on our 2014 science papers resulting from our work here.

This season should be an exciting one. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA are funding us to do a lot more work this season to better understand how much water is being stored in the Greenland Ice Sheet and what that ultimately means for all of you reading this. Note: If you are reading this while on spring break from a nice chair on the beach you should pay attention because over the next few decades the melt from Greenland will raise global sea levels. The only remaining questions are how much and how fast? Our team will play a small roll in answering these science questions by drilling, pounding, radiating, and penetrating into the aquifer in southeast Greenland.

Over the next five to six weeks, this blog will cover not only our science but also our adventures conducting science in one of the harshest regions on Earth. This year will be BIGGER. More measurements, more people, more time in the field, and more blogs. (More blogs assuming the satellite phone data link works. After all, this is field work so we never know.) Everyone on our team will contribute to the blogs so I will introduce them here quickly and you will hear more about each of them and their work in the weeks to come. Enjoy the blogs! We take off for Greenland on March 27, so look for our next installment about our trip from New York to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, soon.

Greenland Aquifer Team 2015

GreenlandAquifer_2015_0323_1

Top row left to right: Josh Goetz, Lead driller from the Ice Drilling Design and Operations group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Clément Miège, Post-doctoral student, radar lead, and Greenland Aquifer team veteran from the University of Utah; Kip Solomon, Professor and ground water hydrology lead from the University of Utah; and Lynn Montgomery, Undergraduate student and seismic team member from the University of Maryland.

Bottom row left to right: Anatoly Legtchenko, Director of research and electromagnetic resonance lead from the Laboratoire d’étude des Transferts en Hydrologie et Environnement (Laboratory of Hydrology and Environment); Lora Koenig, Research scientist, ice core lead and Greenland Aquifer team veteran from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado; Olivia Miller, Graduate student and ground water hydrology team from the University of Utah; and Nick Schmerr, Assistant professor and seismic lead from the University of Maryland.

 

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP): SMAP: The Dirt Behind Improved Forecasting

February 2nd, 2015 by Rani Gran, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Science team leader Dara Entekhabi discusses the science and engineering of NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission with the audience of a NASA Social held on January 28, 2015, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: NASA

Science team leader Dara Entekhabi discusses the science and engineering of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission with the audience of a NASA Social held on January 28, 2015, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: NASA

Dara Entekhabi has been waiting 15 years for this moment—the launch of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Even a snowstorm wasn’t going to stop him: He flew out of Boston just before a major storm dumped over 30 inches of snow on his home.

The satellite, which launched early in the morning of January 31, could aid in studying storms like that in the future. “Next year, if the East Coast sees another major Nor’easter snowstorm, forecasters will be able to predict the flood potential with greater accuracy,” said Entekhabi, lead scientist for SMAP at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

That’s because SMAP can measure how much water the ground can absorb. If the ground is frozen, the soil will not be able to absorb much water from snowmelt. Some of the worst floods occur when it rains on snow. “Its like you suddenly tip a water bucket,” he said.

Since 1999, Entekhabi has advocated for improving weather forecasts with dedicated satellite measurements of soil moisture. Previous investments in higher resolution satellite measurements led to improvements to weather forecast models. But there are other fronts to explore to improve forecasts’ accuracy further.

SMAP’s global look at soil moisture is one of the leading contenders, Entekhabi said. When scientists ran test forecasts using historical conditions, the computer models that integrated realistic surface soil moisture information produced a more accurate forecast. From this result, researchers realized an investment in better soil moisture measurements would provide significant improvements in weather forecasting.

With this knowledge, Entekhabi began the campaign of building advocacy among the science community for a dedicated soil moisture satellite mission. The SMAP mission—a collaboration between the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA Goddard, and science team members from various institutions—has had ups and downs along the road to launch.

“It’s been a long haul,” Entekhabi says. “But I live this every day and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP): SMAP: Adopt a Satellite

January 31st, 2015 by Kate Ramsayer

Vanessa_NASAtv_01312015

Two hours before SMAP’s early morning launch Saturday, Vanessa Escobar was on NASA TV, explaining a new effort to link the soil-moisture-measuring satellite with the people who will put it to use.

It’s called an ‘Early Adopter’ program – and it lets interested companies and agencies, from John Deere to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association, take simulated SMAP data and develop the tools and computer programs to interpret it. With these tools and programs in hand, SMAP’s 45 Early Adopters will be ready to grab the satellite’s data as soon as it’s processed to help improve flood warning systems, forecast crop yields, better predict droughts, understand dust storms and more.

“It’s fantastic science, and through the early adopters the science is getting to the users,” said Escobar, an applications scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

SMAP is the first NASA mission with an Early Adopter program. The mission’s science team has been driven to find ways in which the soil moisture data could be used to benefit people and communities, she said.

And so from an early point, Escobar and her colleagues reached out to people and groups who could use information about the soil’s water content. They started with some of the more obvious groups – agriculture researchers, weather forecasters – SMAP’s “close friends,” she noted. But as word of the program spread, others became interested as well: The public health scientist in the American Southwest concerned with respiratory impacts of dust storms, for example, or scientists interested in mapping sea ice with the satellite’s capability of determining whether a surface is frozen.

With their early access to simulated data sets and time to develop the tools to use them, those adopters are ready.

In the next couple months, after SMAP completes its check-out phase, “the job changes, it goes from simulated data to real data,” she said. “We keep working with the early adopters, we keep communicating with them, and instead of talking about the methods to use the SMAP data, we’ll talk about the impacts, and the societal benefits.”

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP): From a Roadside View to a Global View

January 30th, 2015 by Kate Ramsayer
Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

California road trips cry out for a game I like to call “Guess What’s Growing by the Side of the Road.” The rules are simple – glance at the green leaves sprouting from the ground and guess whether they’re carrots or kale – and you can discover fascinating facts (artichokes are thistles!). This week, I’ve introduced a colleague to the game as we drove back and forth between our hotel and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, past vineyards and rows of green plants in dark soil.

We’re here for the launch of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, NASA’s latest mission to look back at our home planet. SMAP is designed to measure water content with unprecedented accuracy – and after talking with scientists and listening to briefings all week, I can’t think about the mystery roadside crops without wondering about water.

Soil’s water content is a key element in Earth’s ecosystem, scientists involved with the mission said this week. While agricultural fields now produce substantially more crops per acre than they did 50 years ago, agriculture is still very vulnerable to ’shocks’ like droughts, said Wade Crow, a research physical scientist with the USDA and SMAP science team member. An agricultural drought was one of the triggers for the 2008 food crisis when global food prices shot up, causing humanitarian crises, he said.

And measurements of soil moisture – the kind of information SMAP will gather – are the most direct and earliest indicator of agricultural drought.

“If you detect that directly, you are in a position to mitigate the effects. With better monitoring you can better respond so you can have less humanitarian and economic impact,” Crow said.

Soil moisture measurements will also be plugged into the weather models that help meteorologists forecast the rain that falls on those crops and other surfaces. Soil has an ’inherent memory’ when it comes to moisture, said Randy Koster, SMAP science team member and hydrologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

If it’s rainy in mid-June and the soil is wetter than usual, for example, it will probably also be wetter than usual in July, he said. That could impact how much water evaporates into the atmosphere to fall back as rainfall, as well as air temperature. Rainfall on wet soil is also more likely to run off, compared to rainfall that’s soaked up by parched soil, leading to better stream flow predictions.

“SMAP’s going to be providing unprecedented amounts of data on soil moisture, and utilized in these kinds of ways, we have the potential for better forecasts,” Koster said.

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP): Aw, SMAP!

January 30th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

For the time being, NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite is waiting to rocket into orbit.

Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

Media packed up their cameras after the first scheduled launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was scrubbed on January 29, 2015 (above) due to upper level winds. The second targeted launch window on January 30 was delayed to January 31, “pending completion of minor repairs to the United Launch Alliance Delta II launch vehicle,” according to a NASA press statement.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Notes from the Field