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Summer 1997

Member Profile: University of New Hampshire

by Bob Henson
UCAR Communications

It all started with a mountain--not just any mountain, but the legendary Mt. Washington, which looms over central New Hampshire. The highest peak in the northeastern United States at 1,919 meters (6,288 feet), Mt. Washington was a convenient starting point for a few adventurous scientists at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) who wanted to study cosmic rays. Led by Jack Lockwood (now a professor emeritus of physics), the group built a cosmic ray observatory in the 1950s at the peak's long-established weather station, the Mt. Washington Observatory. The site became a center of solar observation for scientists from UNH as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among their early findings, they discovered that solar-wind maxima tied to sunspot activity tended to sweep away cosmic rays from other stars before the rays could reach the earth.

From that tightly focused beginning, atmospheric research at UNH has broadened to become one of the nation's most interdisciplinary programs. The school is a leader in global systems research, with particular expertise in ice-core analysis, chemical and physical oceanography, satellite-based observations of the sun and the earth, and analyses using geographic information system (GIS) data.

Encased in rime, the Mt. Washington Observatory is a snow researcher's dream. (All photos by Robert Henson.)

Most of this work is housed at UNH's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. EOS was founded in the mid-1980s by a group of UNH faculty that included Lennard Fisk, Robert Correll, Paul Mayewski, and Berrien Moore, the institute's director. EOS is not only diverse, it's big, especially for a school the size of UNH (12,000 students) and a town the size of Durham (population 9,000). There are some 40 faculty, 65 graduate students, and 100 technical and support staff in EOS. External research funding exceeded $19 million in FY 1996. The institute is housed in Morse Hall, a three-story complex built expressly for it in 1987.

The expansion of UNH's research from gamma rays to all manner of atmospheric and solar phenomena might produce déją vu in anyone familiar with the history of NCAR. In fact, the creation and growth of NCAR around the formerly independent High Altitude Observatory was one of the things that inspired Moore to develop EOS.

"With HAO and NCAR, we saw that earth and space science could go together," says Moore. He also credits former UCAR president Francis Bretherton (University of Wisconsin), who chaired NASA's Earth Systems Science Committee through the mid-1980s. "Francis had a very clear vision of how the earth could be considered as a system. Along with the theoretical underpinnings of that committee, we also had the experience of seeing what NCAR was doing in global climate modeling. These two things were key."

GIS technician Robert Damm and UNH graduate student Al Pratt examine maps.

According to Moore, the colocation in Morse Hall was "critical to the success of EOS." The building was created before virtual collaborations became commonplace. However, it still serves as a prime place for informal interaction. Many offices face a central atrium. "It's really nice to have people in this building from all different backgrounds," says atmospheric chemist Robert Talbot, who has collaborated with glaciochemist Jack Dibb on polar field studies and with oceanographers to examine the presence of atmospherically derived nitrogen in the Gulf of Maine. "This is such an interdisciplinary field. It's nice to be able to go down the hall and talk to a soils expert [for instance]."

Instrument development also gets a boost from the close physical connections, says Moore. "You begin to develop a collegial staff of support techs--instrument junkies--who flow from one field project to another. We've had technicians go from terrestrial ecosystem field campaigns to atmospheric chemistry campaigns, from developing instruments for solar monitoring to doing the same for ocean modeling."

Perhaps the best-known work from EOS in recent years has been through NSF's Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2), whose science management office is based at UNH and headed by Paul Mayewski. GISP2 made headlines in 1993 with its successful recovery of the Northern Hemisphere's lengthiest ice-core record to date, a 3,052-meter (10,011-foot) sample representing over 100,000 years. Analysis by UNH's Suzanne O'Brien and colleagues hints at several significant global coolings since the last ice age, and Mayewski has hypothesized that abrupt climate swings evident on a 1,450-year cycle may be driven by solar waxing and waning. UNH researchers, led by Dibb, continue to trek to a semipermanent base camp near the center of Greenland each summer for atmospheric sampling. UNH also now houses the science management office for the National Ice Core Laboratory, whose storage facility remains in Denver.

"Ice chemistry is certainly the flagship of what we do with ice cores," says paleoclimatologist Gregory Zielinski. UNH is well known for its work on evaluating the major anions and cations in glacier ice worldwide; among their emphases are volcanic products that include both soluble (acidic) and insoluble (glass) components. For instance, the GISP2 core showed evidence of acids that were linked to eruption of Indonesia's Mt. Toba, the earth's biggest blow of the past half-million years. With the GISP2 data, Zielinski and colleagues were able to reconcile the eruption, which occurred about 71,000 years ago, with changing climatic conditions that included a 1,000-year warming event after the eruption and subsequent glaciation.

The glaciology group from EOS is now engaging in a deep drilling effort in Antarctica as part of a three-year project under way at Siple Dome. An ice core obtained at Vostok Station on the eastern side of the continent stands as the continent's lengthiest record, says Zielinski, but "the accumulations [of snow] in eastern Antarctica weren't high enough to give you the detail we got in GISP2." At Siple Dome, where the accumulation is greater than at Vostok, the team hopes to drill far enough to obtain data in line with GISP2: a higher-resolution profile of 100,000 years of climate, with especially high temporal resolution through the Holocene (roughly the past 12,000 years).

Morse Hall, the home of EOS.

Solar observing continues to be an active specialty at EOS, with several instruments now in orbit and several more to be launched in the next two years. The thread from UNH's initial studies of cosmic rays leads to the present with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, launched aboard the space shuttle in April 1991. UNH was the U.S. center for development of the Compton telescope, the largest ever built for examining gamma rays and an order of magnitude more sensitive than its peers. UNH is also one of three schools, along with the University of Colorado and Boston University, where students are designing and building low-cost, space-based instruments through the NASA Explorer program. UNH's project, the Cooperative Astrophysics and Technology Satellite, is scheduled for launch late next year. CATSAT will study gamma-ray and X-ray bursts. Looking toward the future, UNH has a grant from NASA for theory development to motivate other satellite launches.

Satellites looking toward earth provide raw material for the institute's Complex Systems Research Center, where GIS work is concentrated. A mix of faculty, students, and full-time technicians work with a wealth of LANDSAT data. David Skole heads up a project using LANDSAT's Pathfinder data set to map deforestation, particularly in the tropics, while Barry Rock uses satellite imagery to monitor forest health in New England and central Europe. Rock is also actively involved in developing environmental education programs for precollege students based on his research; in 1994-95, he was on detail in Washington, D.C., as chief scientist with the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program. The GIS center also houses the Geographically Referenced Analysis and Information Transfer System (GRANIT), New Hampshire's geographic information system, which supplies state and local planners with mapping assistance.

The mountain that started it all for UNH atmospheric science is now undergoing a small renaissance of research interest. Last year UNH became the first university member of the Mt. Washington Observatory's Center for Wind, Ice, and Fog Research, giving the school access to the uniquely sited facility. Jill Schoof, of the UNH engineering faculty, braved the fierce mountaintop weather this winter to test weather instruments designed to hold up under the most adverse conditions. Meanwhile, Zielinski and other EOS staff ascended the peak to study snow chemistry. Clinton Chase, an undergraduate student advised by Mayewski, worked on his senior thesis this spring by collecting and analyzing snow and rime samples taken atop the peak during January and March. On the final day of their January stint, temperatures plunged to -34 degrees C (-30 degrees F) and winds gusted to 62 meters per second (138 miles per hour). The team obtained samples over two days bracketing a significant storm, says Zielinski: "At least in the initial results, you certainly saw a change in the snow chemistry [during that time]."

Down the hill in Durham, Berrien Moore is watching a new generation of researchers come into their own at EOS. "We're seeing a cadre of really talented young scientists who are beginning to shift the demographic curve of the institute. We're moving from a ten-plus-year growth phase to our sustaining strategy. How do we maintain our quality? It's very important for an institute to avoid becoming old and stale; it's got to find ways to keep refreshing itself. It's sad when we lose some of our most talented people to other institutes, but at the same time we have a refreshing inflow of young scientists."

The crosscurrents between EOS and other research centers may strengthen in the years to come. For example, B.H. (Rob) Braswell, a recent doctoral student of Moore's, spent a year at NCAR working with David Schimel (Climate System Modeling Program). Both Moore and Schimel served on Braswell's thesis committee. Having a doctoral coadviser from beyond one's home institution may be unusual today, but according to Moore, "it may become more the norm in the future. Teaming with other earth science centers like NCAR is one of our strengths, and it's something we will increasingly do in the future. Besides," he adds, "the skiing is better in Colorado."

UCAR members' representatives from UNH:

Donald Sundberg
Interim Vice President for Research and Public Service
University of New Hampshire
Thompson Hall, Rm. 107
Durham, NH 03824

Robert Talbot
Research Associate Professor
UNH Complex Systems Research Center
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
Morse Hall, Rm. 236
Durham, NH 03824

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Last revised: Tue Apr 4 13:50:42 MDT 2000