HAMPTON, Va. – 18 May 11
Washington State University Student Studies the Stats of Climate Change
By: Heather L. Ogletree
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “The only constant is change.” Change is everywhere — societies change, opinions change, economies change, the world and climates change, but the ability to predict change comes from finding and evaluating trends. When it comes to the environment, scientists collect data to create targeted scientific models which, in turn, may both help inform and persuade the general populace to make their own changes.
“Since the early 1980s, NASA has conducted about 20 major tropospheric airborne field campaigns to investigate atmospheric compositions and processes over a wide range of geographical regions, including remote marine boundary layer and polluted urban centers,” said Gao Chen of NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC) in Hampton, Va.
This spring, Nicholaus Hoifeldt, a senior from Washington State University, joined Chen for 15 weeks as part of the Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) to take part in Chen’s ongoing efforts to create a unified airborne observational base for these measurements, which have been collected by various agencies, in-situ instruments and techniques. According to Chen, “Compared to satellite data, airborne data has longer time coverage (i.e., started before the satellite era), a more extensive suite of species/parameters measured, and more detailed spatial distributions. These characteristics make airborne observations highly valuable for assessing the current model’s capability to understand the key atmospheric processes and to predict the future changes. ”
Hoifeldt added, “Many recent airborne campaigns require multiple aircraft platforms. One major difficulty in determining the measurement uncertainty and consistency is what is measured in the air at one spot on one day is only valid for that spot on that day. There is no guarantee that the air in that spot will ever be the same again.” With well-defined consistency between measurements and techniques, modelers are able to create more advanced Earth System Data Record (ESDR) products which Chen noted, “enhance [the modeling community’s] ability to predict future climate change and assess air quality issues.” And through working with Chen, Hoifeldt learned “just how much of an impact we can have on the planet through our everyday lives.”
Upon arrival, Hoifeldt was faced with his first challenge: “I was introduced to a brand new program I have never heard of, and ask[ed] to perform a new form of linear regression I had never heard of,” he said. However, with a little help he was up to speed in two weeks and could perform his tasks independently. Hoifeldt commented, “My mentor and co-workers were really amazing and helped me along quite a bit.”
Another challenge that Hoifeldt faced, was that of statistics. He said, “This project dealt with statistics primarily, and has been a great challenge and joy to be able to work on strengthening one of my biggest academic weaknesses.”
Chen remarked, “The educational goal for this project is to put a student like Hoifeldt in an environment under which he can use what he learned in school, learn what is needed for the project, and learn what research is. Through this research experience and methodology he learned, Hoifeldt will have more confidence to deal with problems that are completely new to him.”
This fall, Hoifeldt will return to Washington State University to complete his degree in mechanical engineering, after which he plans to pursue a master’s degree in the same field with an emphasis on thermal loading and transport.
As a child, Hoifeldt thought of NASA as a place where “engineers fly to work in jet packs and hover cars,” but after his experience with USRP, “seeing all of the different areas of research NASA is involved in helped me make my decision that I wanted to end up here.”