GPM in Japan, the Road to Launch: Live from Tanegashima, a New Precipitation Satellite is Ready to Launch

February 22nd, 2014 by Ellen Gray
Welcome to Minamitane, Japan. A billboard announcing GPM's launch at the nearby Tanegashima Space Center greets visitors as they come into town. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Welcome to Minamitane, Japan. A billboard announcing GPM’s launch on Feb. 28 th (27th in the U.S.) at the nearby Tanegashima Space Center greets visitors as they come into town. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

At the town line into Minamitane on Tanegashima Island, Japan, a giant billboard announces, “Global Precipitation Measurement / Launching of the rocket is coming soon!”

Six days to be exact.

I grinned when I saw it. Global Precipitation Measurement, or GPM, is why I’m in town. The launch window begins at 1:07 p.m. Feb. 27 (U.S. EST) / 3:07 a.m. Feb 28 (Japan ST).

I’m Ellen Gray, the science writer for the mission. Over the coming week before launch, video producer Michael Starobin and I will be reporting from the launch site as the GPM team in Japan works with NASA’s mission partners, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, on the final preparations before liftoff.

“Global Precipitation Measurement” is a mouthful, but an accurate one. The mission is going to measure all types of precipitation  rain, snow, hail, and that slushy winter mix  across nearly the whole globe, every three hours. When people hear me say that, the question I get is how is one satellite going to do all that? The short answer is that one satellite can’t do it by itself.

The overarching GPM mission consists of more than one satellite. The big picture of global rainfall  comes from the combined observations of many rain and weather satellites operated by different countries or agencies. Each satellite has a similar instrument that measures precipitation, and all that data combined is what gives you the global picture.

The GPM Core Observatory  the satellite launching next Thursday  is going to pull all the measurements from the different satellites together into a single data set. Observations from its radiometer will act as the standard to unify all the other satellite measurements. The Core Observatory’s second instrument is a radar, and together with the radiometer, scientists won’t just be seeing where it’s raining, they’ll be able to study how raindrops and ice particles behave within clouds, and ultimately Earth’s water cycle, in detail they couldn’t before. And it’s the first precipitation mission designed to send back measurements of light rain and snow, two of the trickiest types of precipitation to measure from space.

Stay tuned for a busy week from Tanegashima. You can find the latest mission updates, stories and videos at http://www.nasa.gov/gpm. For photos, Bill Ingalls (@nasahqphoto) will be posting daily to the GPM Mission Set at NASA HQ Flickr. You can also follow the mission on twitter @NASA_Rain and on Facebook. For more in depth information on the GPM mission, Earth Matters put together a nice primer of videos and links. And, of course, we’ll be blogging right here under GPM in Japan, the Road to Launch.

Live coverage of launch will begin at 12:00 p.m. Feb 27 (EST) on NASA TV and online at: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

The Pipeline Disaster That Wasn’t

February 5th, 2014 by David Wolfe

Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by David Wolfe, a remote sensing specialist working with the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) project, and Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona and the GLIMS project coordinator. Wolfe wrote his thesis for Alaska Pacific University about glacier-dammed lakes in Alaska and recently authored a book chapter on the same topic. Gregory Leonard, Michael Abrams, and Adam Voiland also contributed information for this post.

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The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on the Earth Observing-1 satellite captured this scene of an avalanche in Keystone Canyon on January 31, 2014. Notice how debris has obscured sections of both the Richardson Highway and the Lowe River. Image by NASA Earth Observatory.

On January 24, 2014, an exceptionally large avalanche closed the Richardson Highway (Alaska Route 4), the only land link between the ice-free oil port of Valdez and the rest of Alaska. The avalanche was classified as a size 5, the largest category, though no one was hurt. The avalanche impounded the Lowe River, forming a lake. The lake drained within days of its formation, without an outburst flood, due in part to a 100 year-old abandoned railroad tunnel that shunted water around the dam. On February 5, 2014, officials reopen the road.

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) obtained the image below, on January 29, 2014, upon request by the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) consortium. The image is an oblique rendering of part of the ASTER image draped over the GDEM2, a global topographic shaded relief map that was produced from a dozen years worth of ASTER images. It is a standard false-color image taken in visible and near infrared wavelengths. Vegetation appears red; snow is white. If clean, water appears black; if slightly sediment laden, it is blue.

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Perspective rendering of an ASTER image on a shaded relief map, showing the location of the avalanche and impoundment lake relative to a portion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and Richardson Highway. The image was acquired on January 29, 2014. Image by Gregory Leonard and Michael Abrams.

The ASTER image above shows the outlines of the avalanche source, the avalanche deposit, the maximum extent of the impoundment lake, and the routes of the Richardson Highway and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). The lake had partially drained when the image was acquired. At maximum extent, the lake apparently barely overlapped part of the route of the pipeline, but in this sector the pipeline is buried and was thus safe. Although the greater potential pipeline disaster was averted, the closure of the highway has been a significant inconvenience for many people in and near Valdez. Ferries into and out of Valdez were increased to assist stranded residents, and roadway commerce as far as Fairbanks must have been affected by the disruptions to the Richardson Highway.

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Crews from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT&PF) mobilized equipment on the south side of the road closure Thursday evening, January 30, 2014, and began 24-hour snow removal operations early Friday. The top photo shows a Hitachi 450 excavator, providing a scale that shows the avalanche to be 40 feet (12 meters) thick at this location. The next photo, just above, shows a daytime view of the night-and-day operations to reopen the highway. Elsewhere, reports have the avalanche approaching 100 feet (30 meters) thick. Photos courtesy of Robert Dunning and staff, Alaska DOT&PF, reproduced by permission.

The 1.35 square mile (3.5 square kilometer) source of the avalanche was estimated from the ASTER and ALI images and from news broadcast video taken from a helicopter by ADOT&PF, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the Anchorage Daily News, and Alaska Dispatch staff. The huge avalanche and 0.135 square mile (88-acre, 0.35 square kilometer) impoundment lake reminds us of the remarkable engineering of the Alaskan pipeline (below). The pipeline faces many natural hazards, including earthquakes, landslides, floods, forest fires, avalanches, glacier lake outburst floods, and thawing permafrost. In 2002, it survived the magnitude 7.9 Denali earthquake without rupturethough  just barely. Several key design tolerances were closely approached or exceeded, according to a report published in Earthquake Spectra. That earthquake and the 2014 avalanche did not cause a disaster because of the pipeline’s careful engineering, including the use of many novel technologies and special routing. Just about 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) upstream of the Lowe River crossing, the highway and pipeline traverses a creek that has been inundated by periodic outburst floods, some destructive, from a series of glacier-dammed lakes high in the mountains. TAPS was routed underground through the flood impact zone and over the Chugach Mountains. The specific routing averted the extent of the avalanche and lake with no room to spare, suggesting an element of good luck.

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Figure 4. TAPS south of the Alaska Range, highlighting several innovative design features of the TAPS, including the burial of the pipeline in some sectors (such as here, where the pipeline goes underground), the elevation of the pipeline in other sectors, passive ammonia cooling system to maintain the frozen permafrost, and the zig-zag pattern designed to absorb earthquake-caused deformation. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel.

A larger view of the full ASTER image acquisition is shown. Note the presence of unfrozen sediment-laden glacier meltwater of the glacial lake (cyan) north of the oil port and east of the city of Valdez.  The unfrozen state of the lake in mid-winter is a testament to the unusually warm January in Alaska.

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The upper image is an ASTER RGB false-color composite image draped onto the GDEM2 shaded relief map that shows the broader area.  The town of Valdez is visible along the eastern arm of the Valdez Arm.  Valdez Glacier, with its terminal lake (cyan), is visible northeast of the city. The lower image is an inset that shows the site of the avalanche in more detail.

This winter has been extremely mild in Alaska, enough for the record books, and the weather data point to the likely trigger of the avalanche. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) records indicate the January 2014 snowpack for the Valdez recording station was far below normal, while the amount of precipitation (rain or snow-water equivalent) received was more than double the January normal since 1972.  The huge avalanche was conditioned by three consecutive days of record high or record high minimum temperatures and then triggered by days of record anomalous rainfall.

January 2004 temperature records for the Valdez recording station. The almost horizontal lines are the averages for those dates (“normals”) over the period 1972-2014. January 2014 was twice as wet as normal, and about 6°F (3.3 °C) warmer than normal, but the day of the disaster and three preceding days broke multiple weather records in several parameters. Daily low temperatures (not shown) were also exceptional, with no freezing conditions in Valdez for the three nights prior to the avalanche, whereas normal lows are about 19 degrees for those dates.

January 2014 temperature records for the Valdez recording station. The almost horizontal lines are the averages for those dates (“normals”) over the period 1972-2014. January 2014 was twice as wet as normal, and about 6°F (3.3 °C) warmer than normal, but the day of the disaster and three preceding days broke multiple weather records in several parameters. Daily low temperatures (not shown) were also exceptional, with no freezing conditions in Valdez for the three nights prior to the avalanche, whereas normal lows are about 19 degrees for those dates.

A sequence of exceptional weather anomalies extend back to October.  That conditioning set the stage for the rainfall trigger to release the huge avalanche. The warm weather across most of Alaska—including an Arctic January in Kotzebue that experienced winter temperatures more typical of those in Portland, Oregon, is the other side of the coin that dealt the U.S. East, Midwest, and South a severe deep freeze.  Such extreme oscillations of weather are related to a deeply dipping jet stream and establishment of a days-long flow of saturated tropical air into the Valdez area. These conditions, particularly the strong meridional flow of air masses and “stuck” jet streams that resulted in prolonged extreme weather patterns, are thought to be increasing in frequency due to global warming, according to climate modeling by Jennifer Francis (Rutgers University) and colleagues.  The Arctic is warming more rapidly than the Tropics, which may be forcing changes in global circulation and weather patterns.

However, decadal variability caused by atmospheric and oceanographic “teleconnections” to the rest of the planet (El Niño/La Niña being the most famous example, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation being the one most relevant to southern Alaska) are always causing climatic oscillations and sometimes extreme weather, so we cannot yet point definitively to climate change, as opposed to these oscillations, as the underlying cause of this event.  These climatic oscillations affect everything from the salmon fisheries to snowfall and rain patterns, so climatologists will have to look deeply at global warming, disappearing sea ice in the Arctic, and climate oscillations to find the ultimate answer to why Alaska’s weather has been so weird (and indirectly, why this mega-avalanche occurred), and how that relates to what is happening around the globe.

Figure 7. GOES-15 satellite image at 6.5 microns(a region of the thermal infrared that is absorbed by water vapor), portrayed as the temperature at the top of the water-vapor emitting region (clouds or humid air). Reds and yellows portray a very dry atmosphere, where emission of thermal infrared arises very deep in the atmosphere at high temperatures; blues indicate a moister atmosphere, and white and green an extremely moist atmosphere extending to very high altitudes having very low temperatures. The image was acquired 3:00 PM (local Alaska Time Zone) on 23 January 2014, the afternoon before the giant avalanche. A stream of extremely moist air arising in the northern Tropics—sometimes called the Pineapple Express—had been slamming into the Valdez and Keystone Canyon area (red square) for several days, thoroughly soaking the area. Valdez received over 11 inches of rain in the 12 days preceding the avalanche. Image rendered and made available by the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA.

GOES-15 satellite image at 6.5 microns (a region of the thermal infrared that is absorbed by water vapor), portrayed as the temperature at the top of the water-vapor emitting region (clouds or humid air). Reds and yellows portray a very dry atmosphere, where emission of thermal infrared arises very deep in the atmosphere at high temperatures. Blues indicate a moister atmosphere, and white and green an extremely moist atmosphere extending to very high altitudes having very low temperatures. The image was acquired 3:00 PM (local Alaska Time Zone) on January 23, 2014, the afternoon before the giant avalanche. A stream of extremely moist air arising in the northern Tropics—sometimes called the Pineapple Express—had been slamming into the Valdez and Keystone Canyon area (red square) for several days, thoroughly soaking the area. Valdez received over 11 inches of rain in the 12 days preceding the avalanche. Image rendered and made available by the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA.

The avalanche in Alaska cannot be blamed squarely on climate change, but it is another reminder that as climate changes, extreme weather may also be changing, and this impacts the well-being of people and critical infrastructure. Climate change and effects on natural hazards and disasters represents a moving target that must be re-examined by those planning the future, whether it is construction of major infrastructure or planning for disaster recovery. Climate change is not just a matter for the distant future, but it is ongoing now.

We thank the NASA Cryosphere Program, which funds our glacier and cryosphere related research, and the U.S.-Japan ASTER project, which provided the ASTER imagery.

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Kargel is a hydrologist at the University of Arizona and for the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space project. This is his account of the research he did during the aftermath of a deadly flash flood in Nepal’s Seti River Valley to determine its cause. You can read more about the event here.

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Silt and gravel deposits trace the path of the 2012 hyperconcentrated slurry flood, which ravaged Kharapani village, shown here. Annotations show where people died and where they survived. Our research group has undertaken a detailed demographic and sociological investigation of the losses and survivors all along the devastated parts of the Seti River. The panel at lower right was a 1-year anniversary meet-and-greet commemoration, where we met survivors, media, and politicians still very much concerned about the disaster. (Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

On May 5, 2012, I was attending a conference at ICIMOD (the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development). I heard about the terrifying disaster that day. A flash flood—what geologists call a hyperconcentrated slurry because it was thick with suspended silt—had torn through some villages along the Seti River, in north-central Nepal, just north of the country’s second largest city, Pokhara. It was immediately recognized as a very deadly event, but the death toll—and a tally of those who remain missing but were clearly also killed—was not known exactly for several months. Seventy-two souls lost. Though not large on the scale of global disasters, this event was terrifying for the fact that it seemed to come from nowhere—literally from beneath a blue sky. Furthermore, there was no immediately evident cause. Nobody and no camera captured the whole event, but there were bits and pieces that had to be spliced together, and missing parts of the story had to be built from the ground up—literally from the rocks and sediment involved in the disaster.

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The source area for the avalanche of May 5, 2012. Annapurna IV is just off image to the upper left. The rocks here are layered metamorphosed sedimentary rocks deposited originally in the Tethys Sea before the Himalaya rose; the rock layers are now tilted up. Ice hangs precariously at the ridgeline, and apparently an icefall started the whole messy disaster. A dust cloud lingers from a small debris fall just moments after we first landed in Sabche Cirque 6 months after the disaster. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

Seeing that the disaster occurred at the foot of the Annapurna Range, within the Greater Himalaya, probably every expert’s first thought was “glacial lake outburst flood” (GLOF), because these were common in Nepal’s Himalaya, and the news accounts of the disaster event resembled accounts of GLOFs from other parts of the country.  It took me 10 minutes to examine recent satellite imagery enough to see that there were no lakes, at least not in the images I examined, that could have burst out like this.  So either there was a hidden glacial lake somewhere—maybe under the glacier ice—or a glacial lake developed very rapidly and then drained that tragic day, or—far more probable—this was not a GLOF at all.  It was, however, clearly a disaster that had its source in a high Himalayan amphitheatre-like bowl, a glacially-carved structure called the Sabche Cirque. This structure was rimmed by some of Nepal’s most famous, picturesque mountain peaks, including the storied, holy Machapuchare (the “fishtail” peak) and Annapurna IV, a 24,688-foot (7525 m) soaring metamorphic buttress of metamorphic rock.

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View of the avalanche deposit of rock and ice shed from Annapurna IV, which is just beyond the upper right corner. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

One of the most important pieces of information on the cause of the disaster was obtained from wingtip cameras mounted on a tiny 2-seater tourist plane.  The pilot, Captain Maximov, had observed what was obviously a giant avalanche—bigger and browner than any snow avalanche he had ever seen before; he then he saw a massive flood wave pouring down the Seti River valley.  It was evident immediately that this brown cloud of roiling airborne debris was connected to the trigger for the disastrous flood.

This distant view provided in the tourist plane’s video, in addition to later observations I was able to make from the Sabche Cirque itself, led to a confident sourcing of the brown cloud and the disaster’s trigger on a ridgeline near Annapurna IV.  Apparently part this ridge—probably initially the glacier ice— collapsed, dropping ice and rock over 3000 m almost vertically (about 10,000 feet) onto unconsolidated rock debris (glacial moraines and ancient glacial lake silts and gravels) resting unstably in the deep bowl of the Sabche Cirque.  Some of that loose debris was also swept up by the avalanche, and the mass flowed an additional 1,500 meters (about 5,000 feet) into the Seti River gorge.

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Ancient glacial lake sediments such as these in the Sabche Cirque were swept up by the avalanche and ingested both into the ground surge and airborne cloud, then ingested into the reservoir, which then burst forth onto unsuspecting people below.(Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

The triggering avalanche—though enormous and bigger than almost any normal avalanche—was the easy part of the explanation of the disaster.  The hard part was identifying the source of the water, because there was no glacial lake or no known lake at all in the area.  Somewhere a large amount of water had been stored and then suddenly released. Speculation centered on water contained within unseen and unknown caves, or within the deep gorge of the Seti River, and last of all, possible subglacial lakes or lots of little ponds that acted like one big lake. This flood appeared to behave like a glacier lake outburst flood, and the news media can be pardoned for having assumed that it was. From that first day, I and other experts tried to counter the media view that it was a GLOF, but anyway, it was a lot of floodwater.

Since I was in Nepal, I immediately contracted for a helicopter to fly me and some colleagues over the Sabche Cirque. We observed directly evidence of the avalanche—boulders and dust and snow-like pulverized ice in a huge sheet, and streamers of debris emanating from the base of Annapurna IV to the head of the enormous Seti River gorge. We helicoptered over the glaciers and found some small ponds, but nothing that could explain the volume of water; and besides, the ponds were in the wrong place to have been strongly affected by Annapurna IV’s ice/rock avalanche. The pathway of the avalanche became ever clearer after post-disaster Landsat and ASTER images showed clear details of the avalanche deposits.

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The avalanche route through the upper gorge. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

Speculation was now focused toward the gorge. Could something have blocked it?  Well corroborated resident eyewitnesses interviewed by our team indicated that one to three weeks prior to the disaster, the Seti River had slowed to a mere trickle of clean water, unlike the usual turbid, sediment-laden “glacial milk.” (Seti means white, so it is the White River.)  These various observations and ideas had already started to coalesce when my assistant, Greg Leonard, observed a speck of change that had occurred in “before” and “after” ASTER satellite images.  We had a specific spot to look for a rockfall into the gorge.  Then looking at our helicopter-borne photography, we found it. It was indeed a fresh rockfall straight into the gorge, right at a place from which it appeared a backed-up reservoir had issued a flood. Furthermore, Greg showed that the gorge had experienced many smaller rockfalls or other erosional events over the previous decade, but this bigger one seemed to be fresh. The gorge now seemed the likeliest culprit, but at first it seemed difficult to comprehend how much water could be stored in the gorge behind a rockslide dam.

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Flattened forest blown down by the avalanche winds. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

In the days after the disaster, I examined amateur video of the event taken from Pokhara, a couple dozen kilometers downstream from the gorge. I watched as the flood reached Pokhara and as floating trees trunks poured over a dam. It provided the first best opportunity to measure the speed of the floodwaters and its depth and width, and thus measure the volume rate of flow and estimate the total flood volume. The flood came in waves, and the first wave alone was around a quarter of a million cubic meters in just a few minutes. There were about 27 waves in all over the next hours, according to eyewitnesses, so several million cubic meters overall.

At first it seemed a stretch for any one of the suggested water sources to explain the water volume, and this still is a part of the challenge to provide the full explanation of this event. Even my grandson, also intrigued as well as horrified by the disaster, brought his 7-year-old intellect to bear and suggested that it was friction that melted snow and ice that had tumbled off the peaks. Indeed, the conversion of gravitational potential energy to heat could have melted roughly a tenth of the falling snow and ice by the time it reached the Seti River. Nothing seemed quite sufficient; every potential source at first appeared an order of magnitude insufficient to explain the water volume. It seemed that all of the possible sources together might explain the floodwater volume.  Yet one source seemed to be definitely involved, and that was a rockslide-dammed reservoir in the gorge.

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A view of the gorges and also the distant peaks of the Sabche Cirque and the ancient glacial deposits in between. The avalanche entered the gorge from the upper right corner of the scene.

I returned with colleagues to the Sabche Cirque three more times, and we were able to land and set up camp and undertake detailed geological observations. The Sabche Cirque is a violent but beautiful place, with rockfalls, snow and ice avalanches, and flood dangers abounding, and evidence of big and recent geologic activity everywhere we walked or flew. We sampled and later chemically and mineralogically analyzed the dust fallout from Captain Maximov’s brown cloud, and linked it to the sediment deposited by the flood on the ravaged villages downstream. We analyzed the bedrock, the boulders of the avalanche, and searched for other evidence of floods and debris flows. That evidence is everywhere. However, the more we searched, the more it became evident that this was definitely not a GLOF, but was caused by a rockslide into the Seti River gorge, formation of an impoundment reservoir over a several week period due to damming of spring snow and ice melt, and then the final triggering event of the mighty rock and ice avalanche off Annapurna IV. On our most recent trip we used a laser device to determine the depth and width of the gorge and discovered that it is so immense that it alone might account for the required water volume.

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Our first view of the rockslide that initially dammed the Seti River some weeks prior to May 5, 2012, and set the stage for the deadly terror. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

Although this was a terrifying and deadly event, by geologic standards it was not particularly huge. The death toll was due foremost to people living in harm’s way on the lowest terrace and even on the lowest floodplain. Our findings do not bode well for the future of the small settlements scattered along the riverside, and there would seem to be a strong case for resettlement.

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Another devastated area, where there were losses and survivors. A year after the disaster, we were surprised to see a woman living in a house that had barely escaped destruction. Her husband was a river worker. Cattle were grazing nearby. Survivors told harrowing and heart-breaking stories of their tragic losses. (Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.  This sequence of events was pieced together from many data sources, and many people were involved, among them my colleagues and myself, but also Captain Maximov, local villagers, landslide blogger David Petley and his associates; research staff and my field assistants from ICIMOD, especially Sharad Joshi; my other Nepalese colleagues, including Dr. Dhananjay Regmi and Dr. Lalu Poudel; our chief climber, JB Rai and his Sherpa assistants; and two doctoral students, Khagendra Poudel and Bhabana Thapa, who are investigating the geomorphology and sociology of the disaster. I also need to give special thanks to my tireless assistant, Greg Leonard, who was the prime satellite image analyst as well as my chief field assistant.  Finally, I express gratitude to the NASA/USAID SERVIR Applied Sciences Team,  NASA’s Cryosphere Program, and the USAID Climber Science Program, who funded different aspects and phases of this work, and the U.S.-Japan ASTER project, which provided the ASTER imagery. This work will be presented in more complete detail within an upcoming peer-reviewed scientific publication.

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A mosaic of images showing the rockslide area in the foreground in the glacial sediments and avalanche route in the background. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kargel, University of Arizona.)

 

GPM in Japan, the Road to Launch: A Tanegashima Thanksgiving

December 18th, 2013 by Ellen Gray
Flyers at the Sun Pearl Hotel announcing Thanksgiving dinner for Saturday Nov. 30, 2013. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

Flyers at the Sun Pearl Hotel announcing Thanksgiving dinner for Saturday Nov. 30, 2013. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The kitchen of the Sun Pearl hotel doesn’t have an oven. Most Japanese kitchen’s don’t, in fact, but Saturday morning, Nov. 30, the borrowed kitchen was in full swing. Cody Buell, systems administrator for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission’s team in Japan, chopped mushrooms that would go into the stuffing that Courtney Buell was stirring together on the stove. Yumiko Seki, an engineer for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries responsible for launch services for the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency, chopped garlic and onions at another counter. Meanwhile Suja Lee, the GPM support staff interpreter, put together the sauce for Korean barbecue in case the menu of mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes and green bean casserole wasn’t enough.

As for the four turkeys, Courtney told me, Lou Nagao on the Ground Support Equipment team, had arranged for them, and she didn’t know where they were coming from. They were just going to show up by three.

Courtney Buell and Yumiko Seki at work in the kitchen of the Sun Pearl Hotel. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Courtney Buell and Yumiko Seki at work in the kitchen of the Sun Pearl Hotel. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

The third Thursday of November in Japan is just another Thursday. In the GPM clean room, Thanksgiving day was busy as the mechanical team moved the spacecraft from its traveling L-frame to the Aronson table, which supports and rotates the spacecraft as needed for the inspections that followed. So Thanksgiving dinner was moved to Saturday when most of the team had downtime. (On the schedule were solar array inspection and prep work for battery installation.)

Lou wasn’t hard to find. He was in the hotel lobby with Midori Asou, the owner of the Sun Pearl who was opening boxes of Christmas ornaments and putting him to work decorating the small trees set around the entrance. The Sun Pearl lobby was already a riot of decorations, most of them space related. Models of Japanese rockets stand on the reception desk, and a stuffed HII-A, GPM’s launch vehicle, hangs from the overhang with the GPM water cycle card hanging below. On the far wall are more than a dozen mission stickers, including one for GPM, one for its predecessor mission the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, and one for GCOM-W1, a JAXA rain and climate mission that will contribute data to the GPM mission’s global data products.

The Sun Pearl is one of the hotels that the GPM team has been staying at for years, as various team members have come for launch site visits and meetings with their JAXA and Mitsubishi counterparts. It’s family-run and feels as quirky as any bed-and-breakfast. Lou joked with Midori-san as she told him which set of ornaments go with which tree. Her English isn’t strong and, despite having Japanese parents, Lou’s Japanese isn’t strong either, but it didn’t matter — they were getting along just fine.

Midori Asou, one of the owners of the Sun Pearl Hotel, pretending to eat a fake holly berry while she decorates a Christmas tree. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Midori Asou, one of the owners of the Sun Pearl Hotel, pretending to eat a fake holly berry while she decorates a Christmas tree. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Midori-san was one of the big reasons we were having Thanksgiving at all, Lou told me. She helped Courtney, Cody, and Suja find ingredients for an American meal, helping them navigate the small town grocers. She recruited a few of her friends with ovens to bake apple pie, and she opened up her kitchen to the cooks.

As for the four turkeys, yes, Lou had arranged for them. But he didn’t know where they were coming from either.

Courtney and Cody, the Thanksgiving organizers, had struck out with finding turkeys earlier in the week when Lou heard about their search. He started asking around as well, and one of the people he asked was the owner of the karaoke bar across the street, Emiko’s Club. Karaoke is huge in Japan, and a big hit among the GPM team, too. Once Emiko-san understood what Lou was looking for, she introduced him to another of the karaoke singers at the bar that night, Toshihiko Nakagawa, one of the engineering team leads from Mitsubishi. Nakagawa-san said he would see if he could help and on Tuesday asked Lou how many turkeys they needed.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is the primary contractor for JAXA at Tanegashima Space Center. They manage most of the operations including launch preparations and assembling the rocket. They are the team on the ground that works closest with the GPM engineering team. But most of the GPM team has been at Tanegashima for a relatively short time, and at work, it’s all about the mission. This Thanksgiving dinner was a chance to get to know them as fellow members of the GPM family.

The Thanksgiving spread. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The Thanksgiving spread. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The four turkeys showed up, fully cooked as promised, and at six p.m. so did a long line of hungry Americans and their Japanese guests. Jay Parker, GPM’s mechanical team lead, opened the evening with thanks for our hosts and the crew that put dinner together. He added a special tanks for the Mitsubishi team and their crane operator who performed the very difficult lift of the spacecraft out of the L-frame. Then, paper plates loaded with mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, turkey, and Korean barbecue from the grill out back, everyone found a seat in the dining room or at one of the extra tables set up in the lobby and dug in — with chopsticks.

The GPM Thanksgiving was a full house. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The GPM Thanksgiving was a full house. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The food was delicious, a little bit of home brought across the ocean for a night. Lou introduced me to Emiko-san, and a little later found me again to introduce me to Nakagawa-san and another Mitsubishi engineer. “This is Sakae-san. He got us the turkeys!” said Lou. Sakea Gushima is on Nakagawa-san’s team and when Nakagawa-san mentioned the Americans looking for turkeys, he knew a guy. He has a friend who just took over management of one of the local restaurants and put in the order.

While we chatted, Lou explained what Thanksgiving meant for us. “It’s a time when families come together,” he said. “And if you can’t go home, someone will take you in.”

The turkey connection: Sakea Gushima (left), Lou Nagao (center), and Toshihiko Nakagawa (right).

The turkey connection: Sakea Gushima (left), Lou Nagao (center), and Toshihiko Nakagawa (right).

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GPM in Japan, the Road to Launch: GPM in Japan: Let it Be

December 13th, 2013 by Michael Starobin

How do you launch a satellite into space? It isn’t easy. The simple answer would be to build one, place it on a rocket, and shoot it off.

But building and launching satellites turns out to be exceedingly complicated things to do. They’re highly complex machines, requiring profoundly precise levels of craftsmanship, not to mention extraordinary inventiveness. Armies of specialists work closely with supremely skilled designers and mission planners for years to build typical satellites. Most people involved have expensive educations under the belts, and intense, serious years of work proving their mettles while they move up the ranks.

Satellites need money, too–lots and lots. Rockets are expensive; the satellites themselves are expensive; ground operations are expensive.

All of this means huge crowds of people, and in any huge crowd of people you’re going to have differences. People bring different backgrounds, different experiences, different points of view. They disagree; they fall in love; they cause trouble; they stand atop metaphoric mountaintops waving flags like heroes.

Sometimes they sing together, no matter what stripe they wear on their sleeve.

In the small Japanese town of Minimitane on the island of Tanegashima, a small army of NASA engineers worked together in late 2013 to complete the final phases of construction for one of the most sophisticated Earth observing satellites every built. The satellite is called GPM, for Global Precipitation Measurement, and it’s been years in the planning between NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA.

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and dozens of these folks are far, far from home. The past week of work has pushed and tested this crew of diverse specialists, and folks know that mistakes at this stage are not easily corrected. With launch just three months away, there’s pressure to operate at high levels of performance. That’s why when Friday night rolled around, promising long flights home for a portion of the team and flights in from replacement players, a big portion of those still on the island met at a local watering hole to unwind. The scene was no different than millions other similar work crews meeting for drinks after longs stretches on the line. And yet….and yet….

The sign for Emico's Club, one of the karaoke bar's in Minamitane, Japan. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The sign for Emico’s Club, one of the karaoke bar’s in Minamitane, Japan. Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

It happens elsewhere, too, but Japan has a special lock on a peculiar pastime in bars: they sing karaoke. Thirty NASA engineers ordered drinks and started selecting songs.

These engineers are not artists in the traditional sense. As the room’s resident filmmaker, I was decidedly the odd fish in the pond, a koi in a school of tetras. As I got to know the crowd a little bit over the preceding two weeks, I certainly understood how they didn’t necessarily see themselves as artists in the traditional sense, even as I appreciated their craftsmanship and ability to solve tricky problems by looking at them with inventive, disciplined eyes. Often those who work in fields not traditionally regarded as “the arts” miss the opportunity to appreciate shared traits with those who actually do.

Early jokes in the bar began to give way to honest laughter. People began to relax. People took turns singing, poking jibes, having fun. Then the song changed on the karaoke system, and everyone started singing together. We sang The Beatles’s “Let it Be”. Thirty voices rose up together, regardless of political views, sentiments, aesthetic taste, or even deep knowledge of each other. Many in the room didn’t know others there beyond a few cursory greetings throughout the week. But here was a forty year-old song by a British band, easy to sing, resonate of universal things, sung by Americans working on an international space mission on a small Japanese island. We sang from our hearts; people swayed and laughed as they sang, filled glasses between verses, sang louder.

Emico's has been a popular for after-work karaoke since the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission launched from Tanegashima in 1997. Emico, the owner, has a TRMM sticker on a board that's signed by the TRMM team. She also has Polaroid photos of all her patrons over the years.  Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

Emico’s has been a popular for after-work karaoke since the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission launched from Tanegashima in 1997. Emico, the owner, has a TRMM sticker on a board that’s signed by the TRMM team. She also has Polaroid photos of all her patrons over the years. Credit: NASA / Ellen Gray

In the movies the song would have ended with some sort of deeply satisfied looks among people, one to another, telling the audience of some intimate bond of camaraderie. No so in reality. Bon Jovi followed almost immediately, and no one hesitated to get their New Jersey rocker in gear. The moment passed quickly, and for the rest of the night the Earth spun through space as it always does, and folks in this tiny little bar in Minimitane, Japan acted zany and had enjoyed each other’s company. But I’m not being nostalgic here: I’m certain of something. While singing Let it Be, the room changed, even for just the three minutes it played. For a moment, the nuances of tribal distinctions fell away. We were all together, and that was enough. In fact, it was all anyone needed.

People want to be part of experiences that make them feel connected to other people, want to make them feel greater than the strength of their own individual efforts. For a moment, the group raised their voices, sang “….there will be an answer….let it be…” and smiled at each other, genuinely happy to be alive.

I know I was.

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