2008

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

NTB: The Earth Science Division has done quite a bit of research, as you noted before, on wildfires like those that recently decimated large portions of California. What do you hope to learn from that research?

Dr. Hipskind: One of the key issues there is using NASA’s technology to improve the nation’s ability to respond to these major natural disasters. And that is certainly one of the things that we’re learning – what are the key issues for the first responders, what are their information needs, and how best to deliver those needs.

In terms of what are we learning from these fires, one of the things that we can do now with these ecosystem models is, with the input of space-based and surface measurements, you can really look at the carbon fluxes from these large forest areas and then we can do before and after studies using the same model.

One of the things we did after the southern California fires is, we went in after the fact and did some extensive imagery with some very high-resolution visual and infrared equipment. We can take that data and plug it into the models and really look at the details of what was the true impact of those fires on the total amount of carbon flux into the atmosphere from the loss of those forests.

NTB: Do these fires contribute to the problem of climate change by what they expel into the atmosphere?

Dr. Hipskind: Oh, absolutely. Forests are one of the key features on the planet that actually act as a sink of atmospheric carbon, and through the photosynthetic process they take massive amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. So, of course, when you lose those forests to forest fire, there’s a tremendous single event flux of carbon into the atmosphere. But then, of course, you’ve also lost the ability for that area to do the carbon sequestration that it was doing before.

NTB: Does any of the technology developed in the Earth Science Division have any potential future commercial applications?

Dr. Hipskind: One of the things that we’ve been working very long and hard on is the development of these infrared sensors to provide the data that firefighters need to track the fire fronts and see both the speed and direction of the movement. One of the applications of that technology would be to put those kinds of sensors in space, preferably on geostationary satellites so that you could track the movements of these fires with high repeatability. In other words, you need them in geostationary satellites so you can take rapid images of these things as opposed to the polar orbiters that have just a one or two day repeat capability. Certainly putting that kind of technology into space would have a huge impact on the nation’s ability to fight these fires.

NTB: What types of climate related research projects do you envision NASA’s Earth Sciences Division getting involved with in the future?

Dr. Hipskind: As I said, in this coming year we’re doing a major study of the Arctic. In fact, we’re looking at a range of things including major bio-mass burning that takes place in the Boreal Forest in Canada and Siberia, and looking at the impact of that on the air quality. But also, the Arctic tends to be the repository of a lot of transported pollution generated from the mid-latitudes, and again, trying to look at those processes and distinguish natural pollution from manmade pollution that’s transported into the Arctic. That’s certainly a significant focus of our work.

We also, as I think I mentioned earlier, have plans to do some major hurricane studies to really try to pin down their causes. When these waves come off the west coast of Africa, probably 10-percent of them actually go unstable and form into these large storms. So the real key issue to understanding hurricanes is trying to really understand the hurricane genesis, and what are the detailed microphysical processes, or dynamical processes, that cause some of these waves to develop into major hurricanes. Those are two of the major thrusts.

Equally important in the whole issue of climate change is, what’s going to happen in my backyard? We’ve kind of understood the global climate change, in a very sort of average sense, but the real key area for future research is going to be understanding regional climate change and what are the specific impacts that I can expect in my region of the world, or my state, or my city?

Those are really going to be difficult issues. I mean, in the State of California, for example…

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