Sunday, May 26, 2013

Manus is for [Cloud] Lovers

by Jess Conroy

We’re back from our latest trek to the ends of the earth. In pursuit of the rain once again, we headed out to the far western Pacific a couple weeks ago, to the remote island of Manus, off the coast of Papua New Guinea.  This time, we also brought our Picarro instrument along for the ride!
Manus Island, the perfect place to study tropical rainfall!
Why here, of all places?  To complement our rain and seawater collections on Christmas Island and in the Galápagos, we wanted to collect waters from a site bathed in the tepid waters of the West Pacific Warm Pool. I can testify that it was far more delightful to dip my toes in Manus seawater, compared to the chilly waters off the Galápagos!
Grabbing a water sample from a coastal lagoon.

Additionally, to understand the convective clouds that so often drape across the Manus sky, the US Department of Energy and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology have parked loads of fancy instruments here. So, coupled with water vapor isotope measurements from our Picarro, we will be able to place our precipitation isotope measurements in a very rich atmospheric context.
Team Manus: David Noone, me, and Jessica Moerman
standing proudly at the site with our automated rain collector!

What exactly are we looking for? Once again, we are trying to dissect the relationship between stable isotopes in water molecules and climate. In warm, wet, tropical places like Manus, there are usually fewer heavy oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in the rain. And, with more rain, there are fewer and fewer of the heavy isotopes. This important relationship, dubbed the ‘amount effect,’ is used by many paleoclimatologists, along with measurements of fossil water archived in things like speleothems and sediments, to estimate how wet or dry it was many decades, centuries, and even millennia before we started measuring precipitation rates.
Saying goodbye to the Manus weather observers, who will
continue to take our water samples for the next few years.

But, the question we are asking now is, why does this relationship exist? Interestingly, the mechanism for this relationship that I learned in my graduate classes back in the day is only really part of the story (we think). For example, it was once thought that since tropical rain is so intense, all the heavy isotopes rain out initially, making the subsequent precipitation lighter and lighter isotopically. But in the last few years, many new insights about the physics of the ‘amount effect’ suggest other causes of this relationship, like the evaporation of rain beneath the clouds, and the recycling of vapor with very low isotope values from the evaporated rain back into the rain clouds. But these insights come from models, not observations. So, our hope and goal is that, equipped with mountains of atmospheric data from Manus--like cloud base height, 3 different kinds of radar, temperature and humidity profiles through the atmosphere, and rain drop size distributions, for starters, we can start to understand this relationship between precipitation isotopes and rain amount, ultimately improving our interpretation of all those records of past rainfall from paleoclimate records.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Students bring energy efficiency message to the Hill

On May 6, I accompanied the winning team from my class' Carbon Reduction Challenge to Washington DC to boast of their accomplishments to staffers on Capitol Hill, and to learn more about the current status, and future prospects, of energy/climate legislation on the Hill. Team "Lumber Jills" included four young women (Mary Farrell, Rebecca Harris, Olivia Myers, and Priscilla Tong) who averted over 190,000lbs !! of CO2 emissions over the 8-week Challenge this spring. By comparison, our flights to DC emitted ~1500lbs of CO2, as calculated here. They worked with a RBC Bearings, Inc plant in Hartsville, SC to significantly reduce wood pallet waste (we're talking ~20 tons of wood waste per month!) It's a fine example of new win-win partnerships that can emerge between higher education and corporations - saving companies money and providing real-world training for the next generation of energy stewards.

 Here's what the students had to say:
Winners Olivia Myers and Rebecca Harris pose with
Kim Cobb, in front of the Capitol building between
office visits.

Once it was announced that our group had won the Carbon Reduction Challenge, I was excited about the trip to DC. I was excited about flying. I was excited about meeting with legislators. I was excited to possibly change some attitudes regarding energy efficiency. After arriving at Dr. Cobb's parents’ house in DC, we had a delicious dinner and enjoyed the entertaining and stimulating conversation with her parents, who are both professors at George Mason University. Later that evening, Dr. Cobb rapidly educated us on “asks” (What do you want from the lawmaker?) and helped us create “leaves” (a 1-pager containing our main points, key graphics, and contact info - see below) and generally prepared us for the next day. I went to bed with my head spinning.
When we first arrived to Capitol Hill at 8:00am, I was in awe of the majestic architecture of the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol building. That day, we would meet with people who had influence over the major decisions made in this country.
Even though our first meeting, with a staffer for Congressman Lewis (D-GA) was supposed to be “friendly,” Rebecca and I were extremely nervous. Once we sat down, however, we surprised ourselves by coherently explaining our project and delivering our main points:  that energy efficiency should be key component of energy-related legislation, and that the economic gains that it affords make it attractive to lawmakers across the ideological spectrum. The legislative aides seemed to really care about what we were saying. The day went by in a blur, and we grew more confident in delivering our message with each meeting.  As we boarded the plane back to Atlanta, we were tremendously satisfied with our time on the Hill. While I am not planning on going into politics anytime soon, I truly appreciate how much of an impact just one person can have on the process.
-Olivia Myers (3rd year biology major)

Our adventure in DC proved to be very exciting indeed. What was most interesting was the way in which the talks with legislative staffers unfolded. The quality of the exchange always depended on the way we framed our “ask” and the response from the staffer as they summarized his/her Congressman’s position on energy legislation. We mostly visited with the offices of Republican Congressmen and Senators, but we met with people from both sides of the aisle. It was very interesting to see how they differently they approached our suggestions to focus on efficiency as a way to be green and cost-effective. The staffers offered a spectrum of viewpoints and approaches to governance, illustrating the divisions in government that are celebrated in this country as bringing about a balanced solution.

One example of compromise in the presence of division is the process of “marking up” the 2013 Farm Bill that includes legislation on biofuels and bioenergy, slated to occur that week. As part of that process, Senators Franken (D-MN) and Harkin (D-IA) introduced the “Rural Energy Investment Act” that allocates funding to a host of initiatives aimed at encouraging agricultural energy technologies, including advanced biofuels, biogas, biomass, and renewable energies. One staffer joked that the Farm Bill was rapidly becoming an energy bill. Dr. Cobb, Olivia, and I had a very interesting conversation about the evolution of energy-related provisions in the Farm Bill, including past subsidies for corn-based ethanol, and their ultimate effects on climate change. It’s just another example of how energy and climate policy make their way into many different types of legislation.

Later, Olivia and I got a chance to reflect over the day, our conversations with legislative staffers of different parties, the conversations within our own group, as well as our personal viewpoints. We both agreed that this experience allowed us to more greatly appreciate the complexities lawmakers work through during the legislative process. Compromise has always been a tenant of our government, and we see now that it is necessary in order to honor the nation’s diverse viewpoints and frameworks. The day also allowed us to be privy to the core beliefs that guide individual lawmakers. While scientific facts may suggest one course of action, lawmakers have to balance science with other goals when approaching climate and energy legislation. Even though it was frustrating and sometimes maddening when staffers did not agree with us and seemed to ignore the facts, I gained respect for the value they place in best representing the interests of their constituents.
-Rebecca Harris (2nd year public policy major)
A handout illustrating the Lumber Jills
winning strategy for CO2 reduction.

A handout illustrating some of the climate and
energy initiatives at Georgia Tech.