Who knew there was a missing link between soft drinks, forests, ocean acidity, wild fires, cement production, and volcanoes? Today Mike Gunson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory talked to us via Second Life about this “carbon dioxide puzzle” and about how we know from data that humans are a piece of that puzzle.
So when we say that burning fossil fuels releases about 8.5 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere per year, what does that mean? It’s hard to really understand a word like “gigaton” because it means 1 BILLION tons. To give you a comparison, if 1 Mazda Miata weighs about 1 ton, then you’d need 8.5 billion Miatas to make 8.5 billion tons. That’s enough Miatas to circle the Earth 850 times!
It just so happened that the Museum had a Great Energy Challenge event this day. So after we learned about how important it was to have cleaner and more efficient energy, we went through the Museum and made some clean energy ourselves!
It was the greatest video game ever: there was a control pad, and a maneuverable object. Our control pad was a computer remotely hooked up to the Marine Resources Development Foundation in Key Largo. And our maneuverable object was a real, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in waters off the Florida Keys! Working with a scientist sitting in a habitat almost 50 feet under the surface of Largo Sound, each of us took a turn maneuvering the ROV from our lab at the Museum.
ROVs can provide tons of climate information for us, by exploring where humans can’t – underwater caves, the frozen polar regions, oil rigs and shipwrecks. They can use claws to take samples, and probes to take temperature readings, and can observe habitats without disturbing the inhabitants very much. And we were able to operate one! It may be hard to tell from the picture, but it was like a real-life game. You can see our controls on the left, and the view from the ROV’s “eye” as it follows an underwater pipe. Some took to it more quickly than others – it definitely is a skill, and not as easy as it looks!
Navigating an underwater ROV from our lab in the Museum
We’re not the only ones who need to keep a balanced budget. Just like we all have budgets, the Earth has one too. If we spend too much money, our household budget gets out of balance. Likewise, with tons of excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, the Earth’s energy budget gets out of balance. Lin Chambers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center spoke with us today about how changes in the atmosphere (like humans adding literally tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year) can affect the climate.
So it works both ways – humans can affect the climate, and the climate affects us. We went outside and proved that for ourselves, and used Vernier temperature probes to record the temperatures of a variety of different materials and colors. Higher temperatures were recorded for darker colors, proving that old piece of advice you always get in the summer – wear a white shirt in the sun, not a black one. And what is one of the great things about the icy, white polar regions? They are like a white shirt for the Earth. If they melt, it unbalances the Earth’s budget even more. We all have to work on balancing this budget!
Comparing temperatures in sun and shade, and with different materials
Every time we take a breath, we inhale gazillions of tiny solid and liquid particles in the air. These particles are called aerosols. It’s incredible that something ranging from the size of a virus to the width of a human hair can have major effects on our health, and on the Earth’s climate. Aerosols are not completely understood – but what scientists do know is that there are many kinds, both human-caused and natural, and that they definitely can affect the climate.
A lot of aerosols are natural – like sea salt, dust, or the kind ejected up from volcanic eruptions. But then there are the kinds that we humans spew into the atmosphere – like from fossil fuel combustion, cars, and power plants. We learned that these aerosols affect the atmosphere and climate because depending on the type, they can reflect or absorb the sun’s radiation.
Delivering a climate presentation
There seem to be lots of kinds of aerosols, and lots of ways they affect the climate. So we split into groups and each took one kind to research. At the end of the day, we all got to teach each other what we learned about aerosols. Check out the pollution above Beijing, China in 2009 – that’s not clouds!
Pollution above Beijing
Through Second Life, we also got to talk to Dr. Compton Tucker, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He talked about his work in studying an 200m diameter impact crater in the Amazon. The impact released 500 to 1000 megatons of TNT. Imagine the aerosols thrown into the atmosphere by that event!
So how is it that we know about past climate on the Earth? Nowadays we have satellites that monitor patterns and conditions in the land, atmosphere, oceans, and polar regions. But what about before satellites? Today we learned that scientists study ice and sediment cores to learn about past climates.
Basically, each year ice and sediment settle into layers. If you drill down deeper and deeper into ice or sediment, each layer tells us what the climate was like further and further back in time. In that way, ice and sediment cores are kind of like a time machine!
Today Bryan Mark from the Byrd Polar Research Center at the Ohio State University talked to us virtually through Second Life. (So really it was his avatar talking to all of our student avatars.) He talked to us about his research in paleoclimatology (an official way of saying he studies Earth’s long-term climate record), and his research in the connection between glaciers, climate and Earth’s water resources. Dr. Mark actually goes to Peru to study tropical glaciers in the Andes Mountains!
Dr. Bryan Mark meets with students in Second Life
We also got to make models of time machines (aka sediment cores). Using everyday stuff like gravel, dirt, ice, and clear plastic tubing, we actually mixed up the materials in three different combinations, and deposited them so they made three distinct layers. These layers represented three different conditions: an ice sheet (ice over solid land), an ice shelf (ice floating on water), and the open ocean. In real sediment cores, when scientists see indications of these conditions, in this order, it shows that the climate was warming up over that time period.
Reconstructing a sediment core
How amazing! We can “tell time” by rocks and ice! That is exactly what climate scientists like Dr. Mark are doing.
The material is based upon work supported by NASA Competitive Program for Science Museums and Planetariums under award No. NNX09AL31G. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.