Using Dynamic Models to Discover the Past (and the Future?)

Friday, December 16th, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

What was Earth like 2.8 billion years ago?  The first life was emerging on the planet.  The Sun was weaker than it is today, but geologic evidence shows that the climate was as warm (or warmer) than it is today.  Was Earth colder because of the weak Sun, or warmer, as geologic evidence suggests?  How did this affect how life arose?

A new 3-D model of early Earth suggests that the planet underwent significant changes–from very warm to very cold.  Past models were one-dimensional–holding constant the amount of cloud cover or sea ice–to make the calculations easier.  But with more advanced computing, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder were able to make better models of the planet’s climate.

“The inclusion of dynamic sea ice makes it harder to keep the early Earth warm in our 3-D model,” Eric Wolf, doctoral student at CU-Boulder’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences department, said. “Stable, global mean temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit are not possible, as the system will slowly succumb to expanding sea ice and cooling temperatures. As sea ice expands, the planet surface becomes highly reflective and less solar energy is absorbed, temperatures cool, and sea ice continues to expand.”

The scientists’ model shows that Earth was periodically covered by glaciers, but the geologic evidence suggests that it was much warmer than that.  The calculations show that an atmosphere that contained 6% carbon dioxide would have kept the temperature high enough for life to thrive, but the soil samples show that the carbon dioxide concentration was not that high. So what’s the warming mechanism?  Eric Wolf and Brain Toon are still searching for it.

Since the 3-D model takes so much computing time (up to three months for a single calculation), we’ll be waiting a while for the answer.

“The ultimate point of this study is to determine what Earth was like around the time that life arose and during the first half of the planet’s history,” said Toon. “It would have been shrouded by a reddish haze that would have been difficult to see through, and the ocean probably was a greenish color caused by dissolved iron in the oceans. It wasn’t a blue planet by any means.” By the end of the Archean Eon some 2.5 billion year ago, oxygen levels rose quickly, creating an explosion of new life on the planet, he said.

And along the way, better models of Earth’s climate will come out of this study, enhancing scientists’ ability to predict what Earth’s future might look like, and scientists will learn more about the conditions of early Earth, which could help in assessing the habitability potential of other planets.

Explore the interactions of greenhouse gases and ice sheets in the High-Adventure Science climate investigation, and explore the search for extraterrestrial life in the High-Adventure Science space investigation.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111205140521.htm

The Great Antarctic Glaciation

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

About 33 million years ago, the Earth abruptly went from being warm and wet to having Antarctic ice cover.  Only 23 million years after the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a time of some of the warmest temperatures on Earth, ice covered the surface.  What happened?

According to a recent study by scientists at Yale and Purdue universities, the carbon dioxide level dropped. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is contributing to the increased global temperatures on Earth today.

The scientists pinpointed the threshold for low levels of carbon dioxide below which an ice sheet forms at the South Pole. Matthew Huber, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue, said roughly a 40 percent decrease in carbon dioxide occurred prior to and during the rapid formation of a mile-thick ice sheet over the Antarctic approximately 34 million years ago.

“The evidence falls in line with what we would expect if carbon dioxide is the main dial that governs global climate; if we crank it up or down there are dramatic changes,” Huber said. “We went from a warm world without ice to a cooler world with an ice sheet overnight, in geologic terms, because of fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels.”

Having an ice-covered South Pole appears to be the tipping point for cooling the rest of the planet.  The team found that the threshold level of carbon dioxide necessary for ice formation is about 600 parts per million.  For reference, today’s carbon dioxide level is approximately 390 parts per million.  This is why ice sheets still remain on Earth today.

With carbon dioxide levels forecast to rise to 550-1,000 parts per million in the next 100 years, when will the ice sheets completely melt away?  Because the melting of an ice sheet is different than starting an ice sheet, and because the process is not linear, scientists can’t say for sure.  But it’s clear that once the carbon dioxide levels rise high enough, the Earth will have reached a tipping point in the warming direction and the ice sheets will melt away.

Huber next plans to investigate the impact of an ice sheet on climate.

“It seems that the polar ice sheet shaped our modern climate, but we don’t have much hard data on the specifics of how,” he said. “It is important to know by how much it cools the planet and how much warmer the planet would get without an ice sheet.”

So how warm will Earth be in the future?  What’s the cooling impact of the ice?  Will greenhouse gases continue to rise?  Will increased cloud cover compensate for the lack of ice?

Explore how greenhouse gases and ice affect Earth’s temperature and learn more about feedback and tipping points in the High-Adventure Science climate investigation.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111201174225.htm

When in Drought…

Monday, December 12th, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

New groundwater and soil moisture drought indicator maps produced by NASA are available on the National Drought Mitigation Center’s website. They currently show unusually low groundwater storage levels in Texas. The maps use an 11-division scale, with blues showing wetter-than-normal conditions and a yellow-to-red spectrum showing drier-than-normal conditions. (Credit: NASA/National Drought Mitigation Center)

GRACE groundwater map of continental U.S.

The map (above) shows the change in stored groundwater in the contiguous United States.  Texas, which experienced record heat and wildfires this summer, is experiencing a very severe drought.  The change in stored water should not be a surprise given the weather conditions of the past year.  (By contrast, New England has a surplus of water from a very wet summer and the remnants of Hurricane Irene.)

Drought maps offer farmers, ranchers, water resource managers and even individual homeowners a tool to monitor the health of critical groundwater resources. “People rely on groundwater for irrigation, for domestic water supply, and for industrial uses, but there’s little information available on regional to national scales on groundwater storage variability and how that has responded to a drought,” Matt Rodell, a hydrologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said. “Over a long-term dry period there will be an effect on groundwater storage and groundwater levels. It’s going to drop quite a bit, people’s wells could dry out, and it takes time to recover.”

The question is: how long will it take to replenish the water that has been removed from the aquifers in Texas? Matt Rodell estimates, “Texas groundwater will take months or longer to recharge.  Even if we have a major rainfall event, most of the water runs off. It takes a longer period of sustained greater-than-average precipitation to recharge aquifers significantly.”

Water is a resource that everyone needs.  In dry environments, such as southwestern Texas, water is especially precious.  Water is used for the usual personal purposes, for agricultural purposes, and in natural gas wells.  For example, accessing the natural gas in the Eagle Ford shale deposit, which runs from the Mexican border towards Houston and Austin, requires millions of gallons of water to fracture the shale and release the stored hydrocarbons.

The prolonged Texas drought is putting more pressure on local officials about how best to use the limited amount of groundwater.  What is the best way to use the water supply?  Who gets first dibs?  How much should different businesses pay for water?  These are highly-important questions that can only be answered with a full understanding of how groundwater works.

You can explore how groundwater flows and propose solutions to water-supply issues in the High-Adventure Science water investigation.

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/tx-drought.html

Drought spurring fracking concerns

Oil’s Growing Thirst for Water

Texas

More planets!

Friday, December 9th, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

A team of astronomers led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology have found 18 planets orbiting stars more massive than our Sun.  Finding planets is becoming more and more routine with the Kepler telescope, but these planetary discoveries help to answer questions about planetary formation–and raise other questions about planetary orbits.

The scientists focused on stars more than 1.5 times more massive than our Sun.  To look for planets, they used the “wobble” method, which looks for shifts in the apparent wavelengths coming from the star.  The 18 planets that they found are all larger than Jupiter.

According to John Johnson, assistant professor of astronomy at Caltech, these discoveries support a theory of planet formation. There are two competing explanations for how planets form: a) tiny particles clump together to make a planet and b) large amounts of gas and dust spontaneously collapse into big dense clumps that become planets.

The discovery of these planets supports the first explanation.

If this is the true sequence of events, the characteristics of the resulting planetary system — such as the number and size of the planets, or their orbital shapes — will depend on the mass of the star. For instance, a more massive star would mean a bigger disk, which in turn would mean more material to produce a greater number of giant planets.

So far, as the number of discovered planets has grown, astronomers are finding that stellar mass does seem to be important in determining the prevalence of giant planets. The newly discovered planets further support this pattern — and are therefore consistent with the first theory, the one stating that planets are born from seed particles.

The larger the star, the larger the planets that orbit it.

“It’s nice to see all these converging lines of evidence pointing toward one class of formation mechanisms,” Johnson says.

But there’s another mystery that’s come out of this discovery.  The orbits of these 18 newly-discovered large planets are mainly circular.  Planets around other Sun-like stars have circular and elliptical orbits.  Is there something about the larger stars that make it more likely  that planets will have a circular orbit?  Or is it just a phenomenon noticed because of the small sample size? Johnson says he’s now trying to find an explanation.

Stay tuned–not only may we find a planet that could harbor life, we could also learn something about the origin of our own solar system!

Learn more about finding planets and the search for extraterrestrial life in the High-Adventure Science investigation, Is there life in space?

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111202155801.htm

What caused the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum?

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

What caused the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)?

About 56 million years ago, Earth’s temperature was a lot warmer than it is today–as much as 21°F higher than today (see the graph).  Earth’s temperature is rising today, likely because of human emissions of greenhouse gases.  But 56 million years ago, there were no human emissions; there were no humans.  What caused the big increase in Earth’s temperature?  And could it happen again today?

Researchers at Rice University suggest that the temperature increase could well be due to releases of stored methane from the oceans.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and a natural product of bacterial decomposition.  In the oceans, methane sinks into the sediments and freezes into a slushy gas hydrate, stabilized in a narrow band under the seafloor.

According to calculations done by the Rice University scientists, the warmer oceans resulted in more methane hydrate being stored.  At warmer temperatures, bacteria decompose organic materials faster, resulting in more methane in a shorter period of time.  They estimate that, just before the PETM, there was as much methane hydrate stored as there is today, in a smaller band than exists today.

If this band is disturbed, as by a meteor impact or earthquake, the methane can be rapidly released into the atmosphere.  More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere result in increased warming.  But there’s no evidence of there having been an impact.  So what happened to release the methane 56 million years ago?

Nobody really knows, but the significance is clear.

“I’ve always thought of (the hydrate layer) as being like a capacitor in a circuit. It charges slowly and can release fast — and warming is the trigger. It’s possible that’s happening right now,” said Gerald Dickens, a Rice professor of Earth science and an author of the study.

That makes it important to understand what occurred in the PETM, he said. “The amount of carbon released then is on the magnitude of what humans will add to the cycle by the end of, say, 2500. Compared to the geological timescale, that’s almost instant.”

“We run the risk of reproducing that big carbon-discharge event, but faster, by burning fossil fuel, and it may be severe if hydrate dissociation is triggered again,” Guangsheng Gu, lead author of the study, said, adding that methane hydrate also offers the potential to become a valuable source of clean energy, as burning methane emits much less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels.

Learn more about the feedback loops involved in climate change in the High-Adventure Science climate investigation.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111109111542.htm

When More Is More

Monday, December 5th, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

In science, less isn’t more; more is more.

That basic premise is supported by a recent report from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Separating signal and noise in climate warming.  Earth’s overall temperature is affected by natural processes, such as La Niña and El Niño, as well as by human factors.

From 1999 to 2008, Earth’s temperature was fairly steady, coming after the steady rise in temperature that occurred from the late 1980s.  What happened in that 10 year period?  Probably noise from natural phenomena, conclude scientists at LLNL.

“Looking at a single, noisy 10-year period is cherry picking, and does not provide reliable information about the presence or absence of human effects on climate,” said Benjamin Santer, a climate scientist and lead author on an article in the Nov. 17 online edition of the Journal of Geophysical Research (Atmospheres).

The solution?  Look at longer time periods to see past the natural noisy fluctuations in Earth’s temperature data.  After looking at all of the data, scientists concluded that temperature records must be at least 17 years long to see the human-caused warming amidst the natural fluctuations.  More data leads to more accurate conclusions.

Explore the hows of climate change in the High-Adventure Science climate investigation.

https://www.llnl.gov/news/newsreleases/2011/Nov/NR-11-11-03.html

Absolute Certainty Is Not Scientific

Friday, December 2nd, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

That’s the title of an editorial by Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and professor emeritus at the University of California, in today’s Wall Street Journal.

With the ongoing polarization of science in today’s political environment, it’s more important than ever to remember that science is filled with uncertainty.  Everything that scientists know about how the world works has been discovered by observation and experimentation.  None of us were around at the very beginning, so we can never be absolutely certain about how the world works, though we can be very certain that we understand how it works.

You can’t prove anything to be true in science.  This seems unintuitive to many people, including many of my former students, who used to insist that they had proven their point because the data supported their hypotheses.  But since we will never be absolutely certain about how the world works, we can never prove that any particular hypothesis or theory is absolutely true.  That’s why good scientists design experiments to disprove their hypotheses.  While you can’t prove anything to be true, you can prove things to be false.

So good scientists are forever questioning their assumptions, looking for evidence that their hypotheses and theories are wrong, open to the idea that they may have misinterpreted the data.  It’s vitally important for science teachers to remind their students to have this kind of healthy skepticism; scientific progress cannot easily proceed if people entrench themselves into opposing camps without regard for the data.

This is something that the High-Adventure Science investigations aim to do–immerse students in the data about climate change, finding extraterrestrial life, and freshwater resources–without making all-or-nothing judgements about the current state of the science.

“If you think that science is certain–well that’s just an error on your part.” ~Richard Feynman

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204630904577058111041127168.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEADTop#articleTabs%3Darticle

Finding Fossil Aquifers on Earth

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

NASA technology is being used to find fossil aquifers underneath Earth’s driest deserts.  This technology was developed to explore underneath the surface of Mars, to help determine if there might be water on the red planet.  Water is a sign that life might be possible.

Why are they using this technology on Earth?  We know that there is water on Earth; we know that there is life on Earth.

Firstly, it’s the only way that scientists can “see” underground structures.

“This demonstration is a critical first step that will hopefully lead to large-scale mapping of aquifers, not only improving our ability to quantify groundwater processes, but also helping water managers drill more accurately,” said Muhammad Al-Rashed, director of Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research’s Division of Water Resources.

We might have a lot of water on Earth, but it’s not distributed equally.  Knowing the availability of the water supply helps us to use it in a sustainable manner.

Secondly, it’s a good way to study the climactic history of these regions.

“This research will help scientists better understand Earth’s fossil aquifer systems, the approximate number, occurrence and distribution of which remain largely unknown,” said Essam Heggy, research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Much of the evidence for climate change in Earth’s deserts lies beneath the surface and is reflected in its groundwater. By mapping desert aquifers with this technology, we can detect layers deposited by ancient geological processes and trace back paleoclimatic conditions that existed thousands of years ago, when many of today’s deserts were wet.”

Previously, climate research has focused on Earth’s polar regions and forests.  It is important to study those areas, but arid and semi-arid regions make up a big part of the planet, and they should be studied too.

This is a great story that shows how technology developed for one area of research can often be useful for several other fields of science–all of which are highlighted in our High-Adventure Science investigations!

Learn about searching for water on other planets in the High-Adventure Science space investigation, learn about aquifers and water sustainability in the High-Adventure Science water investigation, and learn about using geologic formations to reconstruct previous climates in the High-Adventure Science climate investigation.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110915182850.htm

Transpire Locally, Cool Globally

Monday, October 3rd, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

As plants grow, they transpire, releasing water into the atmosphere.  During the summer in a city, trees help to cool the immediate surroundings through transpiration.

New research from Carnegie’s Global Ecology department, published last month in Environmental Research Letters, concludes that transpiration has a global effect as well.

How does this happen?  Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, so one might expect that more water vapor in the atmosphere would lead to higher temperatures.

But water vapor also condenses into clouds, which reflect sunlight, resulting in a cooling effect.  The increased transpiration from plants, combined with evaporation from bodies of water, results in lower-level clouds.  Lower clouds tend to reflect more sunlight, hence the cooling effect.

So you can plant trees locally, reap the cooling effect locally, and also help to cool globally!

Learn more about the relationship between clouds and climate in the High-Adventure Science climate investigation.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110914161729.htm

Pumice: Islands of Life?

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 by Sarah Pryputniewicz

Pumice, a type of volcanic rock, is so porous that it floats on water, as shown in the picture below.

Now researchers from Oxford University and the University of Western Australia are suggesting that life on Earth could have formed on floating rafts of pumice.

The researchers argue that pumice has a unique set of properties which would have made it an ideal habitat for the earliest organisms that emerged on Earth over 3.5 billion years ago.

‘Not only does pumice float as rafts but it has the highest surface-area-to-volume ratio of any type of rock, is exposed to a variety of conditions, and has the remarkable ability to adsorb metals, organics and phosphates as well as hosting organic catalysts, such as zeolites,’ said Professor Martin Brasier of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences who led the work with David Wacey of the University of Western Australia. ‘Taken together these properties suggest that it could have made an ideal ‘floating laboratory’ for the development of the earliest micro-organisms.’

Floating pumice could have been exposed to lightning, oily residue and metals from hydrothermal vents, and ultraviolet light.  All of these conditions have the potential to generate the kinds of chemical reactions that scientists hypothesize created the first living cells.

The scientists plan to test their hypothesis by subjecting pumice rocks with cycles of heat and radiation to see if the process creates molecules associated with life.  They also plan to examine the early fossil record for evidence of fossils in pumice.

If scientists can determine how life on Earth began, they’ll be better prepared to search for evidence of life on other planets.

Learn about the search for extraterrestrial life in the High-Adventure Science space investigation.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110903131404.htm