2008

Dr. Steve Hipskind, Chief, NASA’s Earth Science Division

Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

ImageDr. Steve Hipskind is an expert on climate change and the effects of global warming with over 20 years of experience in atmospheric research. He currently heads up NASA’s Earth Science Division.

NASA Tech Briefs: You are in charge of NASA’s Earth Science Division at the Ames Research Center. What is that division’s primary mission and what are some of the projects you’re currently working on?

Dr. Steve Hipskind: Our Earth Science Division here at Ames is primarily focused on science and the application of the science program at NASA. We’ve had a long history of supporting the Earth science mission at NASA. Our two primary focus areas here at Ames are in atmospheric science and biospheric science, or ecosystem science. We have a long history of doing measurements from aircraft, so we’ve done a number of missions in the past year. We fielded a major international field campaign in Costa Rica to look at clouds and transport processes in the upper troposphere, lower stratosphere of the tropics, which is a very under-sampled region of the earth’s atmosphere.

This year we’re embarking on the ARCTAS [Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites] mission, which is a major international study of the Arctic to look at air quality and pollution transport. It’s one of the NASA missions that is supporting the International Polar Year effort.

Another major campaign we did in the last year was to use unpiloted aircraft to work with the U.S. Forest Service in helping them better respond to major wildfires. One of the things that we did was give major support to the southern California wildfires this past fall; we provided the whole end-to-end information delivery system that helped them better fight the fires.

NTB: There’s a lot of attention being paid lately to the issue of global warming. When did NASA first become aware of the problem?

Dr. Hipskind: NASA has been involved with the issue of climate change and global warming for at least 20 or 30 years. In fact, it probably goes back even farther than that. Clearly, that’s been a major focus in the last several years, and it’s certainly a major focus of the work that we’re doing here at NASA Ames.

One of our other major thrusts is using very detailed ecosystem models to understand the carbon cycling of ecosystems and to really understand the impact of climate change and land use change on the ability of the earth’s ecosystems to absorb carbon.

NTB: With all of the media hype surrounding climate change and global warming lately, it’s sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Speaking as a scientist who studies climate change for a living, just how serious is the problem, and is it reversible?

Dr. Hipskind: Well, those are really very difficult questions to answer. Clearly there’s no question that global warming is occurring. One of the reasons we’re going to the Arctic this year is because the Arctic seems to be the canary in the coal mine. It seems to really be suffering the impact of climate change more than other regions on the planet. So certainly, there’s no doubt that global warming is occurring. NASA satellites – for example, the ISAT satellite – have clearly demonstrated the major loss of the arctic ice sheet; there’s no question that that’s occurring. There are concerns about whether the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the next decade or so.

The question of whether it’s repairable…I think that’s the tougher issue to answer.

NTB: How much of the problem would you say is manmade and how much of it can be attributed to natural causes?

Dr. Hipskind: Well, the key there is to look at our climate models, which basically look at both natural processes and human processes, i.e. the effluence of carbon from the use of fossil fuel and other sources. The key issue there is that the only way that you can really reproduce the current temperature trends is to use a combination of both natural and human-induced changes. That’s pretty clear evidence that there’s a significant impact of human activity on global warming.

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