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Earth Matters

When Music and Climate Change Meet
During a recent event that highlighted the intersection of art and science, NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt offered an intriguing pitch (see 5:15 in the video above) for a climate change symphony that would use music to tell the story of Earth’s long and varied geologic history. “There are trends in the tides of the planet that come from the changes in the continents, the wobbles in the Earth’s orbit,” he said, emphasizing Earth’s many rhythms, crescendos, and cataclysms that lend themselves to music. Schmidt’s comment came during a panel discussion that included former New York Times reporter Andy Revkin and EPA climatologist Irene Nielson, and followed a unique  Antarctica-inspired performance from a string quartet arranged by Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky). Schmidt isn’t alone in thinking along these lines. NPR recently interviewed composer Andre Gribou about creating musical scores for films shown on spherical visualization system called Science on a Sphere. A new SOS film – called Loop – came out this week.

It’s Official: 2011 Sea Ice Second Lowest on Record
A few weeks ago, the National Snow and Ice Data Center offered an initial assessment of Arctic sea ice that showed that the minimum extent for the year was the second lowest on record. Since then, NASA scientists have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s and confirmed the finding. Joey Comiso, a NASA sea ice expert, said the continued pattern of low sea ice extents fits into the large-scale decline that has unfolded over the past three decades. “The sea ice is not only declining, the pace of the decline is becoming more drastic,” Comiso pointed out. “The older, thicker ice is declining faster than the rest, making for a more vulnerable perennial ice cover.”

So That’s What Happened to UARS
An old stalwart of NASA’s Earth-observing fleet, the six-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), came tumbling through the atmosphere in an uncontrolled reentry in late-September that generated a slew of headlines about the risks of being struck by falling space junk. Those risks, of course, are minuscule (about 1 in 21 trillion) and the handful of satellite pieces that did survive reentry ended up falling harmlessly into a remote area of the South Pacific in the general vicinity of Christmas Island. After its launch in 1991, UARS played a critical role in parsing out how chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals that used to be used widely as refrigerants, deplete  ozone. UARS is gone, but for NASA the study of ozone goes on. Later this month, a new ozone-monitoring instrument called Ozone Mapper Profile Suite (OMPS) will launch as part of the NPOESS Preparatory Project.

Texas Drought Overstays Its Welcome
If you’re from Texas, you know this already. But for those who aren’t: the state has been embroiled in an extended heat wave and drought that has left large portions of the state on fire and caused billions of dollars in losses for farmers. If that’s not gloomy enough for you, climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon of the University of Texas warned that the situation isn’t likely to improve anytime soon. The drought could easily persist until 2012.  The problem? The establishment of a new La Niña in the central Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon characterized by cooler ocean temperatures that leads to wetter than normal conditions in the Pacific Northwest and drier conditions in the Southwest.

Dramatic Arctic Ozone Loss
In April, the World Meteorological Organization announced that scientists had observed significant thinning of the ozone layer over the Arctic. That news turned heads because it’s the ozone layer over Antarctica that’s most prone to ozone loss. Recently, a research team associated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory offered a more comprehensive assessment of the unusual spring thinning in the Arctic  based on data collected by the Aura and CALIPSO satellites, balloon instruments, and atmospheric models. The bottom line: the upper atmosphere of the Arctic grew so cold this winter that ozone loss was severe enough that scientists say what amounts to a “hole” (five times the size of California) formed over the region and persisted for more than a month. Is climate change to blame?  Sort of, but not exactly. Manmade chlorofluorocarbons drive ozone depletion (not the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide), but scientists say that global warming has likely exacerbated ozone loss because it cools the upper part of the atmosphere even as it warms the lower part. Confused? The Capital Weather Gang has a post that delves into the details.

What are you doing to celebrate?

October 12th, 2011 by Mike Carlowicz

It’s Earth Science Week. What are you doing to celebrate?

Our colleagues within NASA and at other institutions have organized a series of educational and outreach activities this week that showcase our science and the people behind it. Some highlights include:

+ A webcast with NASA’s chief scientist, Waleed Abdalati, from 1-2 p.m. Eastern Time on October 12. Teachers and students are invited to join Waleed Abdalati to share stories and perspectives on our ever-changing Earth. Participants can email questions during the webcast. Visit and scroll down to the DLiNfo Channel Webcasts to link to the webcast (no registration necessary).

+ Profiles of women making a difference in Earth science at The stars include: Cynthia Rosenzweig, who leads a group studying the impacts of climate change; Erika Podest, who studies wetlands and the global carbon and water cycles; Erica Alston, who focuses on fisheries and atmospheric science, including air quality; and Claire Parkinson, project scientist for the Aqua mission and a climatologist studying sea ice.

+ An introduction to the next Earth-science satellite, NPP, set to launch later this month. The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project will play a key role in studying climate change. Learn more about NPP and its polar bear mascot NPPy at

+ Short videos introducing Earth Science Week and NASA’s role in studying Earth, as well as educator resources and programs. Visit

Organized by the American Geological Institute and its federal and private partners, Earth Science Week was created in 1998 to help the public gain a better appreciation for the science and stewardship of our planet. The theme this year is “Our Ever-Changing Earth,” something you can observe daily here on the Earth Observatory.

“We invite you to join us online, explore our changing planet, and share this work with your students, family, and colleagues,” says Eric Brown de Colstoun, a scientist who also coordinates Earth science education for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “You can also choose to reflect on how lucky we are to live on this beautiful and ever-changing planet, the home base from which we carry out our many explorations into the universe.”

More information about Earth Science Week can be found at Archived events from 2011 and years past can be found here.