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.

NTB: The Earth Science Division has done extensive research into the problem of ozone depletion over the South Pole. What's causing this depletion, and how does it factor into the overall climate change equation?

Dr. Hipskind: That's kind of a classic example of the value of NASA's science capability to really understand these major global problems. We did some of the pioneering work with partners from around the country and, in fact, around the world, back in the late 1980s. NASA had developed these airborne platforms, which were really the only systems capable of making direct measurements into the ozone hole in the southern hemisphere. Those field campaigns that were done, both in the Antarctic in 1987 and then in the Arctic over a series of campaigns in the late 1980s to early 1990s, demonstrated very conclusively that the ozone loss in the polar stratosphere was linked to manmade chlorine. That's a huge success story in that scientific evidence was used to make international environmental policy – the Montreal Protocol – and the evidence is very clear that the Montreal Protocol is doing its job. The amount of chlorine getting into the stratosphere has definitely been declining.

NTB: Will the ozone layer come back? Will the hole fill itself if we continue along this path?

Dr. Hipskind: Yes. That's very much the expectation. The Montreal Protocol is doing what was intended. These compounds have decades-long lifetimes, so the expectation is that once we shut the major production of the CFCs off in the late 1990s, it would be several decades before it completely recovered and returned to "normal," i.e. pre-1980s levels. And the evidence is that that is, indeed, occurring.

There is not a particularly direct relationship between the stratospheric ozone loss and climate change, although it does seem that with global warming there's a tendency that while the lower atmosphere warms, the upper atmosphere – the stratosphere – tends to cool. And it's those cold temperatures that are part of the ozone loss equation. So with global warming the tendency is for the ozone recovery to be slowed down.

NTB: It seems like the world has been experiencing a rash of weird natural phenomena over the last few years – earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes. It even snowed in Baghdad this year, which no one had ever seen before. Is global warming causing all of this, or are there other explanations? Is it a much more complicated equation, or is it purely global warming?

Dr. Hipskind: Well, that's certainly the focus of a lot of attention and research right now. I mean, there's a large current controversy over whether global warming is the root of the increased hurricane activity. That's certainly an area where NASA has a lot of capability to help understand the question. One of the things that we are hopefully getting geared up to do in the next couple of years is to begin to use these large, unpiloted aircraft to really get some better detailed information on the genesis and the amplification of these hurricanes. But that is a major area of controversy right now, so the jury is still out on how much of these strange phenomena are attributable to global warming. Clearly, it occurs to me that there's an increase of these odd events, as you said.

NTB: It just seems strange. Maybe it's nature, or maybe it's caused by us.

Dr. Hipskind: Yes. We certainly don't have too many tornadoes at this time of year [January] like we just had in the last couple of weeks.

NTB: Particularly when you get one that goes through New York City. I don't think anyone has ever seen that happen before. Do you think we'll ever have the technology to, if not control weather patterns, at least alter them, or lessen their severity?

Dr. Hipskind: That's certainly another controversial issue. There was a lot of research in this country and other countries in the 1960s and 1970s into trying to do weather modification. The research was abandoned in the early 1970s because it was felt that there really was no…that the efforts to do weather modification were completely inconclusive. It didn't seem like it was possible to actually influence the weather.

I think the best thing that we can hope for is to continue on the road that we're on, to deploy monitoring satellites so that we are better able to track weather systems. Whether we'll ever be able to modify them is very debatable.

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…

NTB: You did a presentation on this for the State of California, didn't you? So you've done some work in this area.

Dr. Hipskind: Yes, and the State of California is looking at spending billions of dollars in water projects and those are going to be highly dependent on expected regional climate impacts. I think that's really where the major focus of our research is going to need to go – on trying to understand regional climate impacts.

NTB: I'm no scientist, but I would imagine if we can work out the problem and understand how it works at the regional level, the big picture – global – will take care of itself. Am I correct in that assumption?

Dr. Hipskind: The big question on the global scale is whether we're going to be able to turn back global warming through some of these mitigation policies – changing our fuel usage, etc. – or whether we're really going to have to focus more effort and resources on adaptability, i.e. adapting to inevitable climate change. The regional impact studies will really help in both of those arenas.

For more information, contact Steve Hipskind at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2008 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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