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Fall 2002

A look at this summer’s Boulder-area

by Bob Henson

Perhaps more than ever, UCAR and NCAR played host this summer. Researchers and students flocked to NCAR’s Mesa and Foothills Labs for workshops, colloquia, and other meetings that ranged from a day or two to several weeks in length. Below is a roundup of some of the workshops held in and near Boulder this summer.

Cultivating a crop of globalchange scientists

“In the observational work that I do,” Elisabeth Moyer says, “there’s such a tendency to get lost in your lab and forget that the wider world exists.” The mountain setting of Steamboat Springs, in northwest Colorado, provided fresh air in more than one sense for a young atmospheric chemist like Moyer. A postdoc at Harvard University, she is working on aircraft instrumentation to address the role of water vapor in climate and global change.

NOAA launched its Postdoctoral Program in Climate and Global Change in 1990 to help nurture a discipline that was then only starting to take shape. Now well established, the program—administered by UCAR’s Visiting Scientist Programs—supports eight two-year fellowships annually, pairing each fellow with host scientists at U.S. institutions to work in an area of mutual interest. Every two years, current and former postdocs rendezvous in Steamboat for a week to share notes on each others’ work and reflect communally on where global-change science is headed.

Meg Austin (VSP) has organized each of the five summer institutes to date. “The scientists spend the week in a relaxed setting, educating each other on areas of expertise—which are really broad in this program—and talking about the future of climate research and how it [affects] policy.”

By all counts, the formula works. “Most of these fellows have gone on to be real leaders in their field,” says Austin. Participants in the Steamboat summits rave about the blend of younger and more mature researchers and the big-picture emphasis. “[It] would be a good model for interactions in the community as a whole,” wrote one of this summer’s attendees. And, says John Young (University of Wisconsin–Madison), “It’s been very productive for laying the foundation for decades of really strong national research.”

Participants in the 2002 institute of NOAA’s Postdoctoral Program in Climate and Global Change. (Photo courtesy UCAR Visiting Scientist Programs.)

Richard Somerville (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) served as scientific coordinator of the 2002 summer institute. Like Young, he’s served on the postdoc selection committee. “These people are superb,” he says. “They’ve been through a very fine filter. Many of them are meeting one another and communicating across disciplines for the first time.” He’d like to see the program expanded: “Dollar for dollar, I think it gets a tremendous return.”

Not your typical summer job

Some students make it to graduate school before they discover what it’s like to deliver research results in a seminar format. Participants in UCAR’s SOARS program get over any beginners’ fears while still working on their bachelor’s degrees. This summer brought 10 new and 14 returning protégés to the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science program. Designed to increase the diversity of graduate students in atmospheric science and related fields, SOARS is operated by UCAR in collaboration with NSF, the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, NASA, and NOAA.

Protégés generally enter SOARS as upper-division undergraduates and continue through the first two years of graduate school. They spend three or four summers carrying out research at NCAR, their home university, or another lab, with support from an array of mentors. The protégés—especially new ones—have only about ten weeks to get oriented, carry out their research, and present their results through formal scientific papers and the SOARS Colloquium. Each protégé gets a half-hour slot in the colloquium to explain her or his summer’s work and to field questions.

Some protégés arrive with little experience giving presentations. It doesn’t take long for them to come up to speed, thanks to the carefully structured SOARS process. Each protégé gives a practice talk, preceded by several informal versions delivered while research projects are still jelling. This gives protégés a chance to think through the rationale for their work and get feedback while there’s still time for revisions.
SOARS protégés Garymar Dé Rivera Rivera, Amber Reynolds, and Rei Ueyama sport 3-D glasses while attending a colloquium talk by fellow protégés Erik Noble and Pauline Datulayta in NCAR’s Visualization Lab. (Photo by Lynda Lester.)

A number of the colloquium talks find their way to broader audiences. Several SOARS protégés present their work each autumn at the annual meeting of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. Despite being inadvertently placed in the graduate-student category while still an undergraduate, Pauline Datulayta (Queens College, City University of New York) won first place for oral graduate presentations in geoscience/atmospheric science at the 2001 SACNAS National Conference. Another protégé, Theresa Jo Johnson, earned first place for her poster in the same division. Six protégés presented posters last January in Orlando at the inaugural Student Conference of the American Meteorological Society, and several more have given talks at other AMS meetings.

The close contact engendered as protégés work on their talks with scientists, communication mentors, and peers is part of the mentoring package that earned a major award for SOARS last autumn. The program garnered one of the sixth annual Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Director Thomas Windham, who accepted the honor in Washington, D.C., is glad about a choice he made while SOARS was taking shape during the mid-1990s. “The original plan was for a dinner celebration” at the end of each summer, he recalls. “Instead, I proposed the colloquium.”

Two weeks of immersion in aerosols and climate

One of the more ominous environmental stories to make headlines this year was the public announcement in August of the “Asian brown cloud,” a seasonally enhanced clot of pollutants extending from southern and eastern Asia into the adjacent Pacific. The story wasn’t news to 33 participants in the 33rd summer colloquium sponsored by NCAR’s Advanced Study Program. Only a month earlier, they’d been learning about the Asian brown cloud and other aerosol-related issues from top scientists in the field.

“We chose to focus on aerosols this year partly because of the work that’s been done in several recent field programs, which has certainly altered our quantitative understanding of aerosols,” says NCAR scientist William Collins. He worked with Veerabhadran Ramanathan (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and Yoram Kaufman (NASA) to organize this year’s colloquium.

As in past years, the colloquium ran for two weeks, with a full slate of lectures each day. Ramanathan addressed the regional and global climate effects of what he called the “great Indo-Asian haze.” Several talks focused on observational techniques and results from field work, including satellite-based studies. “NASA has initiated a series of major satellite instrument programs focused on aerosols, so I thought it would be timely to introduce the students to the new data from those instruments,” Collins says. With the new NSF/NCAR HIAPER aircraft now being readied (see p. 16), he adds, “there was some discussion with Barry Huebert [University of Hawaii] about large field programs that could exploit that aircraft.”

Aerosols influence climate directly, through radiative effects (absorption or reflection), and indirectly by changing the character and extent of cloud cover. “There was an interesting debate about the meaning of the indirect effect and what should be done in terms of future IPCC assessment,” says Collins. He notes that in each successive report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the role of aerosols becomes more prominent in the mix of climate forcings considered, “and the component relating to the indirect effect just keeps growing.” Also discussed was the strongly absorbing nature of some aerosols, including very opaque ones found streaming off the African coast. “Measurements presented during the workshop show there are a lot of smoldering fires that tend to burn fairly inefficiently, and these fires release a large amount of absorbing smoke.”

Participants got to apply their knowledge right away through the computer lab of NCAR’s Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division. The students obtained aerosol optical properties from NASA’s orbiting Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), then fed the data into a simple single-column model based on the atmospheric component of NCAR’s Community Climate
System Model.

The colloquium “was a tremendous amount of fun but a phenomenal amount of work,” says Collins. “Fortunately, the speakers all did a superb job—they pitched their talks with the right amount of pedagogical material at the beginning.”

Participants in the 2002 ASP colloquium modeled aerosol effects at an NCAR computing lab. (Photo by William Collins, NCAR.)

A contest to nail down CO2 patterns

Partitioning the steady global climb in atmospheric carbon dioxide into regional sources and sinks isn’t easy, but it’s critical to climate change policy. In a unique workshop, two teams of scientists matched wits, using virtual instruments and atmospheres, to see how our understanding of the CO2 budget might be improved. Organized by NCAR’s Britt Stephens and David Schimel, the competition was the centerpiece of a summer institute cosponsored by NCAR and Colorado State University.

Due to differences in ground cover, CO2 concentrations over continents can vary by as much as several percent across only a few miles. Levels of CO2 can also rise and fall with the passage of fronts. Since the bulk of air motion worldwide is along east-west rather than north-south belts, it’s been possible to narrow down the latitudinal zones that serve as overall sources or sinks. “We think there’s a large amount of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere by land ecosystems between 30 and 60 degrees north,” says Stephens. Any results more specific than that, he adds, are “highly model dependent.”

After several days of introductory talks, more than 30 institute attendees were split into two teams. Each team was granted an imaginary budget for use in deploying pseudo-instruments—aircraft, towers, ships, and buoys—around the globe. The organizers assigned realistic costs to each imaginary instrument and threw in a few biases and uncertainties.

With the help of NCAR’s Scientific Computing Division, the “red” and “blue” teams then brought data from their instrument fleet into a global model. The idea was to construct a region-by-region picture of CO2 over a year’s worth of model time, with the picture taking a different form for each team based on the locations and types of its chosen instruments. The red team placed much of its network across high-emitting North America, while the blue team opted for a more evenly distributed global network.

David Schimel and Britt Stephens chaired an innovative workshop on carbon dioxide assimilation. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

The teams’ networks are now being compared to a pseudo-atmosphere created by NCAR’s David Baker and Roger Dargaville. Early results do not suggest a clear winner, according to Schimel. “Each team captured some regional CO2 patterns and not others, but the approaches appear to have resolved different parts of the overall pattern.”

Support for the institute came from NSF’s Biological Sciences and Geosciences Directorates and from the NCAR director’s office as part of a strategic initiative in the biogeosciences. Stephens and Schimel worked with Colorado State colleagues Dennis Ojima and Tomi Vukicevic to pull together a grassroots team of enthusiastic volunteers. According to Schimel, “Everybody perceived this would be a great scientific problem, a technological opportunity, or just plain fun.”

The institute’s second week became unexpectedly difficult after the loss of colleague José Palala (York University), who died of natural causes over the weekend. The participants chose to dedicate the publications arising from the institute to the memory of Palala. “The loss of a talented young scientist at the beginning of their career was devastating to me,” Schimel says. “The only way to make it meaningful was to reaffirm my committment to science and to the great colleagues that make doing science both possible and joyful.”

Undergrads and teachers get a glimpse of research

UCAR’s Education and Outreach (EO) program provided an up-close look at atmospheric and related research this summer for two underserved groups: undergraduates and K–12 science teachers.

The first NCAR Undergraduate Leadership Workshop brought 16 students to Boulder to learn about not only how research takes place at NCAR but how scientific leaders make a difference. “Over and over, we emphasized the leadership angle,” says EO director Roberta Johnson. The undergraduate years are a time when students are becoming ever more skilled at problem solving yet remain open to new ideas. By getting speakers such as Kelvin Droegemeier (University of Oklahoma) to address the need for thoughtful, articulate advocates for science, “we were hoping to broaden the students’ horizons beyond getting their next homework set done,” she says.

“I have a much broader understanding of atmospheric science,” said John Krasting (Rutgers University) after the workshop. “It is not simply operational forecasting—it encompasses technical, social, and economic issues that span many disciplines.” Another participant, Scott Rabenhorst (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), said of the workshop, “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Along with big-picture discussion, the workshop included more traditional field-trip elements, such as a tour of NCAR’s Research Aviation Facility and NOAA’s Boulder laboratories. “The students really got an opportunity to tour around and see the different research groups,” says Susan Foster, EO associate director. “Now their job is to apply these new perspectives to their plans for graduate school and beyond.” EO plans to take lessons learned this inaugural year into the next leadership workshop in June 2003.

EO also introduced a workshop for educators this past summer. From over 170 applicants, 20 teachers were chosen from 16 states for the NCAR Climate and Global Change Geoscience Education Workshop. The group spent two weeks meeting with NCAR scientists, networking with each other, and learning how to tailor global change science to middle and high school students.

The cream-of-the-crop educators on hand (among them, Indiana’s Teacher of the Year) were chosen based on their geographic diversity and their skill in training colleagues. “We’re and atmospheric science to colleagues as well as scientists. The teachers showed considerable interest in classroom-based software that explains modeling, such as STELLA; sessions involving that package were a particular hit, says Johnson. “STELLA isn’t always accepted at first among K–12 teachers, but at least half said they were going to go back and get a site license.”

In addition to continuing the Geoscience Education Workshop, EO will be introducing a new workshop on modeling next summer as an outreach component of Earth System Modeling Framework activities. Support from this NASA-funded project will enable a group of teachers to spend two weeks at NCAR in the summers of 2003 and 2004. The influx will no doubt keep EO staff going at full tilt—especially since the office will also be working on education supplements to several grants headed by NCAR scientists. With many research grants now specifying some type of educational outreach component, “We can help scientists hit the ground running,” explains Johnson. “You can take small bits of funding and get some high-impact work done with them by leveraging existing programs.”

Undergraduates at an NCAR leadership workshop take a tour of the NSF/NCAR C-130 aircraft. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Middle and high school science teachers use potatoes to explore plate tectonics and other geologic principles at an NCAR-based education workshop. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Thursday, October 17, 2002 12:59 PM