ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Fall 2009


More news, publications, and honors from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory.


Quake damages NOAA site

Mark Cunningham, Station Chief of NOAA’s baseline atmospheric observatory in American Samoa, has reported that he, his family, and the observatory’s groundskeeper are fine following a major undersea earthquake in the region, which triggered deadly tsunami waves, although the home of NOAA’s groundskeeper was destroyed. At least 140 died Tuesday, Sept. 29 on the islands of Samoa and American Samoa, according to news reports. NOAA’s American Samoa observatory sits on the northeastern tip of Tutuila Island, on a ridge about 42 m above the South Pacific Ocean.

Jim Butler, Director of ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division, has been speaking with Cunningham by mobile phone at least briefly every day since the earthquake and tsunami. Cunningham updated his boss on the status of the NOAA observatory, and told him about ferrying people from devastated, low-lying areas to the higher observatory site, and providing shelter. The NOAA observatory has become the second largest designated shelter area in American Samoa due to its elevated location and substantial self-supporting infrastructure, including electrical generation capacity.

“Once again, Mark is a hero when heroes are called for,” Butler said. “We owe him a lot.” Cunningham received a Bronze Medal from NOAA’s Workforce Management Office in 2005, following the Category 5 Cyclone Heta in January 2004. The award praised Cunningham’s service in restoring operations to the Samoa Baseline Atmospheric Observatory, which had been pounded by 90-foot-high waves.

HFCs threaten climate

Chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are likely to play an increasingly significant role in future climate warming, ESRL’s David Fahey, John Daniel (Chemical Sciences Division), and international colleagues projected in a study published in late June. HFCs—used as substitutes for ozone-depleting compounds in applications such as refrigeration, air conditioning, and the production of insulating foams—are greenhouse gases.

“HFCs are good for protecting the ozone layer, but they are not climate friendly,” Fahey said. The authors calculated that HFCs, which currently have a relatively small climate contribution (~1% of carbon dioxide emissions), could become 9-19% of business-as-usual CO2 emissions by 2050, because of growing HFC production and use, especially in developing countries. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In related policy news… Parties to a Montreal Protocol working group in July discussed whether and how to regulate HFCs, described as “highglobal warming potential alternatives for ozonedepleting substances.” The Montreal Protocol and its amendments regulate substances that deplete the ozone layer. HFC use is growing rapidly, in part because the protocol has phased out production of chemicals that destroy ozone. In the July meeting report, parties wrote that because HFCs are considered greenhouse gases, results from the December international climate meeting in Copenhagen should be taken into account before the ozone community decides what action to consider.

One month later, the leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the United States included language about HFCs in the August 10 “North American Leaders’ Declaration on Climate Change and Clean Energy.” The document affirmed the necessity of taking aggressive action against climate change. In it, Canadian Prime Minister Harper, Mexican President Calderon, and U.S. President Obama wrote “…we will: Work together under the Montreal Protocol to phase down the use of HFCs and bring about significant reductions of this potent greenhouse gas.” More recently, the same nations submitted language to amend the Montreal Protocol to accept the task of regulating HFCs. The amendment will be discussed in the November annual meeting of parties.

NOAA chief visits Barrow, AK

ESRL Director Sandy MacDonald speaks with staff at Barrow Observatory.

ESRL Director Sandy MacDonald speaks with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco (second from left) and other staff, at the Barrow Observatory in Alaska. Photo by Bill Mowitt, NOAA.

A delegation of leaders—including NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, several members of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Congressional staffers—visited ESRL’s Barrow Observatory August 19. ESRL Director Sandy MacDonald traveled with the group to discuss the importance of environmental monitoring, especially in the fast-changing Arctic, where the air and oceans are warming and sea ice is retreating. Steve Grove and Jason Johns of ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division led a tour of the Barrow Observatory, which Dr. Lubchenco called “a model” for an international network of atmospheric climate observatories. For her, the visit was part of a week of traveling in Alaska with U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen and Nancy Sutley, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

“Climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than any other place on Earth—and with wide-ranging global consequences,” Dr. Lubchenco later wrote in a memo to NOAA. “As efforts to explore and understand the Arctic region expand, NOAA will be called upon by a growing number of stakeholders—from the U.S. military to tour operators to commercial shippers—to provide an even greater suite of services to help ensure these activities are conducted safely and efficiently.”

AirCore patented

AirCore, an ESRL-invented “system and method for providing vertical profile measurements of atmospheric gases,” will receive a patent October 6, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The patent, number 7,597,014, credits Pieter Tans of the Global Monitoring Division for the invention.

AirCore, a long coil of stainless steel tubing, can be lifted to high altitudes by balloon or airplane to collect a high-resolution altitude-specific, continuous sample of air. On launch, one end of the tube is open, letting out pre-filled standard air as the pressure drops. During descent, as the pressure increases, the tube refills with atmospheric air. The small diameter of the tube acts to prevent significant mixing of air from different altitudes through rapid diffusion in the radial direction in the tube. Thus, the air that flows in at high altitude gets pushed toward the back of the tube by air that comes in later at lower altitudes. The tube is closed upon landing to preserve the layers of air inside, which can then be analyzed sequentially for greenhouse gases and other trace gases that do not interact with the walls of the tube.

The system is cheap, rugged, and accurate, according to experiments comparing AirCore measurements with those from more expensive flask sampling systems or on-board analyzers.

Other members of the ESRL AirCore team include Colm Sweeney and Anna Karion (CIRES) of the Global Monitoring Division. Russ Chadwick and Randy Collander (CIRA) of the Global Systems Division were involved with the high-altitude balloon testing of the AirCore.

Haze less...hazy

Atmospheric particles called aerosol have complex effects on climate—some particles can cause cooling, others warming, and the particles can also affect the formation of clouds, with their own radiative effects. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified aerosol as one of the most uncertain aspects of human-caused climate change. A new ESRL study, which calculated the effect of anthropogenic aerosols in a completely new way (without climate models) has sharpened scientists’ understanding of the climate effect of the particles. Daniel Murphy and colleagues in ESRL’s Chemical Sciences Division, the University of Leeds, and NASA used observations and basic conservation of energy principles to construct a global energy budget since 1950. The team calculated anthropogenic aerosol’s effect at 1.1 Watts/m2 of cooling, in good agreement with the IPCC’s 2007 estimate of 1.2 Watts/m2. Importantly, the researchers also narrowed the uncertainty around that figure, ruling out, for example, the possibility of significantly larger cooling effects once thought possible.

Target: Arctic feedback

U.S. Coast Guard C-130 airplane

A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 airplane bearing ESRL instruments to study greenhouse gases in the Arctic. NOAA photo.

ESRL scientists teamed up with the U.S. Coast Guard this spring, summer and fall, to fly sophisticated instruments over the Alaskan tundra and look for manmade and natural sources of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. Recent observations have suggested that the air above Alaska contains early signs of a regional increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which could contribute to climate change around the globe.

Using a Coast Guard C-130 airplane, NOAA researchers swapped out a window for a plate with air inlets. They installed instruments that can measure methane and carbon dioxide levels every other second, and others that capture air for more detailed analysis back in Boulder, Colo. The data should help scientists map natural and manmade emission sites of carbon dioxide and methane.

Billions of tons of carbon are buried in the frozen Arctic tundra, which is now heating up because of human-caused climate change. NOAA is trying to understand what that means for the future of the region: Will warming dry out the tundra, leading to the exhalation of carbon dioxide? Or will warmth let lakes and pools form, allowing microbes to feast on buried organic matter and burp up methane?

“So far profiles north of the Brooks Range indicate significant enhancements in methane emissions near the surface,” said Colm Sweeney, from ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division and CIRES. “But it’s uncertain whether those are local emissions from human activities or outgassing from natural sources.”


Steve Albers (Global Systems Division) was awarded the 2009 R.R. Newton Award for Scientific History, for proposing the idea that records kept by centuries-old astronomers might contain information about then unknown planets. Albers published a record of mutual planetary conjunctions from 1557-2230. An astronomer used those data to conduct a targeted search of Galileo’s manuscripts, and found that the astronomer had seen Neptune in 1612 and 1613, more than two centuries before the planet was officially discovered.

Eight ESRL researchers won NOAA OAR Outstanding Paper Awards, for their contributions to two of the five winning papers: 1) On the global distribution, seasonality, and budget of atmospheric carbonyl sulfide (COS) and some similarities to CO2, Journal of Geophysical Research (by ESRL Global Monitoring Division’s Stephen Montzka, Brad Hall, Jim Elkins, Tom Conway, Pieter Tans, and CIRES’ Paul Calvert and Colm Sweeney; and 2) Meteorological characteristics and overland precipitation impacts of atmospheric rivers affecting the West Coast of North America based on eight years of SSM/I satellite Observations, Journal of Hydrometeorology (by ESRL Physical Sciences Division’s Paul Neiman, Martin Ralph, and Gary Wick, with CIRES Jessica Lundquist and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Michael Dettinger).

Tracy Hansen, Thomas LeFebvre, Mark Mathewson, and Mike Romberg (Global Sciences Division) were awarded a NOAA Technology Transfer Award “for continuing improvements to the Graphical Forecast Editor (GFE) allowing the system to be used in River Forecast and National Centers, as well as for tailoring GFE systems for the meteorological agencies of Taiwan and Australia.”

Martin Ralph also won a 2009 NOAA Administrator’s Award, “for exemplary leadership of the NOAA Unmanned Aircraft System Program during its formative stage.”

A.R. Ravishankara was awarded the 2009 Morino Foundation Fellowship by the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the Morino Foundation, and the National Institute for Environmental Studies. Ravishankara presented his Morino lecture in Tokyo in September.

Susan Solomon (Chemical Sciences Division) won the 2009 Volvo Environmental Prize, for her distinguished work in the Antarctic as well as her exemplary leadership during the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr. Solomon also earned an honorary degree from the University of Reading, for her contributions to the understanding of ozone depletion and climate change.