ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Winter 2009


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


2008 Cooling

It was strangely cool in 2008 in North America. ESRL scientists and colleagues evaluated temperature trends and patterns from that year and concluded that the cooling was likely from natural variation—North American temperatures would have been considerably colder in 2008 without human-induced climate warming, they found.

Lead author Judith Perlwitz (ESRL Physical Sciences Division and the Cooperative Institute for Research Environmental Sciences) and her colleagues used observations and computer climate models to investigate the sources of observed climate and weather patterns in 2008—a technique called “attribution.” Cold North American temperatures were primarily due to the fact that the region is sensitive to natural variation in the tropical and northeastern Pacific sea surface, which was unusually cold that year.

“The implication is that the pace of North American warming is likely to resume in coming years, and that climate is unlikely embarking upon a prolonged cooling,” the scientists concluded in a paper published Dec. 8 in Geophysical Research Letters. More: doi:10.1029/2009GL041188.

Air Quality Workshop

More than 100 researchers from around the world gathered in Boulder in December, for the first International Workshop on Air Quality Forecasting Research, sponsored by NOAA and Environment Canada. Participants described ongoing efforts to develop and improve operational air quality forecast models and discussed the challenges faced by researchers and by agencies, including the need for more and better observations.

International air quality forecasting experts

International air quality forecasting experts gathered at ESRL for a research conference. Photo by Will von Dauster, NOAA.

“Our focus is on research that is specifically related to operational air quality forecasting, and I don’t have to tell this group about the growing need,” said Jim Meagher, Deputy Director of ESRL’s Chemical Sciences Division, during an introductory plenary session.

Paula Davidson, NOAA’s project manager for air quality forecasting, described the impact of air pollution in the United States: “There are more than 60,000 premature deaths in the U.S. from poor air quality, with huge associated health costs, more than $100 billion per year.”

Davidson and Veronique Bouchet (Environment Canada) discussed the models and data used today by each country to forecast levels of air pollutants—from smoke to surface ozone—and described forecasting successes and challenges. Both researchers focused on the difficulty of accurately predicting particulate matter, fine particles and droplets from a variety of sources that can affect human health and are regulated in both countries.

Meagher said that he hopes that the workshop will be the first of an annual series. More:

AGU Town Hall

AGU Fall Meeting logo.

Instead of the usual NOAA Research “All Hands” meeting at the American Geophysical Union, AGU, meeting in San Francisco, NOAA and Exploratorium leaders hosted a Town Hall meeting to talk about the educational collaboration between the agency and the museum.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco, “a museum of science, art, and human perception,” is an international leader in informal science education, said Rick Spinrad, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Research. Earlier this year, NOAA and the museum signed an agreement to co-develop interactive exhibits, online learning experiences, professional development workshops, and more.

Spinrad invited researchers and staff across NOAA to have fun with the new collaboration, and build connections with the Exploratorium’s exhibit designers and program managers. “You have carte blanche,” Spinrad said. “Literally: a NOAA badge will get you in free to the Exploratorium.”

Rob Semper, Exploratorium executive associate director, described the museum’s plans to move to an expansive new location on a pier near downtown San Francisco, a site that will include outdoors and dock space. “It would be daunting to move into this opportunity, this environment, without someone who really knows about it, and that’s you,” Semper said.

Mary Miller, the Exploratorium’s director of the new partnership, said it has already resulted in tangible results: Exploratorium visitors online and in person can learn about– and communicate with–NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer. And Exploratorium staff are working with ESRL’s Physical Sciences Division, to develop an exhibit based on innovative weather and climate instruments researchers here developed for field work in California. Miller described ESRL’s raindrop disdrometers, which help researchers understand the physics of precipitating clouds, as “poetic and artistic, as well as scientific. “We know this is going to result in some really cool exhibits on the floor,” she said.

AGU Science

Hundreds of ESRL researchers and affiliates from CIRES and CIRA attended the AGU meeting. ESRL scientists and affiliates chaired more than a dozen sessions, gave talks and posters, spoke as invited presenters and during press conferences, and led additional smaller meetings during the larger conference (which included more than 15,500 presentations). ESRL outreach staff maintained a strong presence at the NOAA booth in the AGU Exhibition Hall. More:

Climate “Roadshows”

One-day workshops can significantly improve the “climate literacy” of resource managers, according to ESRL data presented at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco.

Kristen Averyt (Physical Sciences Division and CIRES) discussed a series of workshops held across Colorado in 2009, to disseminate information about how climate variability and change affect the state’s water resources. The workshop involved short presentations, extensive interactions between participants and climate scientists, and breakout discussions. The information presented was based on Climate Change in Colorado, a report written last year by the Western Water Assessment (a joint project of NOAA and CIRES) in support of Governor Bill Ritter’s Colorado Climate Action Plan.

The 80 workshop participants were quizzed about climate facts both before and after the workshop, Averyt said, and made significant gains in understanding. Before the workshop, participants tended to accurately identify global climate change impacts, but did not understand some basic climate science concepts. Only 23 percent of those who completed surveys understood basic climate trends in Colorado (increased temperature and variable precipitation, for example); after the workshop, that number jumped to 74 percent.

“Some misconceptions remained,” Averyt said. “People still confuse climate change and climate variability, and the influence of ENSO in Colorado…so we need to work on better communicating those messages.”

She and her colleagues also asked participants prior to the workshop whether they use climate information to inform decisions, and where they obtained that information. People tended to use just a couple federal sources of climate data, and were unaware of many regional and other federal sources, Averyt said. During the workshop, the team discussed many sources of information, and participants said they were eager to begin using some of the climate tools they’d just learned about— especially from the National Integrated Drought Information System, NIDIS.

Ozone Hole

The Antarctic ozone hole reached its 2009 peak circumference in late September, according to ESRL measurements. Slightly smaller than the North American continent, the ozone hole covered 9.2 million square miles, according to satellite observations. This ranks as the 10th largest since satellite measurements began in 1979.

Ozone over South Pole Station, Antarctica, also reached its thinnest point of the year on Sept. 26. Measured in Dobson Units (DU), which indicate the amount of ozone in a vertical column of air, the 2009 low level of 98 DU is the seventh smallest since 1986 (the record low of 89 DU was recorded on Oct. 6, 1993).

The atmospheric ozone layer protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. It has been damaged by human-produced compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which release ozone-destroying bromine and chlorine into the atmosphere. International agreements have strictly limited the use of CFCs since the early 1990s.

“The Montreal Protocol has been effective in reducing emissions of long-lived CFC gases, but high enough concentrations remain in the atmosphere to lead to significant ozone destruction in polar regions,” said Bryan Johnson, project leader of ESRL’s Ozonesonde Group. “Monitoring ozone over Antarctica provides the essential yardstick to see whether we are on the predicted track for recovery based on the current rate of declining CFCs.” Although CFCs are slowly decreasing in the atmosphere, scientists project that the ozone hole will not fully recover before 2060.

Aerosol Effects on Climate

Cloud systems are complicated, characterized by feedbacks and buffering mechanisms, many of them involving tiny atmospheric particles (aerosol). Overall, aerosol particles are estimated to cool the climate system—partly offsetting warming by greenhouse gases—but their effects vary from place to place, and uncertainty about aerosol-cloud-climate interactions still plagues global climate models.

A study by Graham Feingold (Chemical Sciences Division) and Max Planck Institute scientist Bjorn Stevens reviewed research to date on the aerosol-cloud-climate system, to assess why the uncertainties remain so large on this topic. They identified problems in the ways researchers attempt to investigate aerosol cloud-climate systems—including a failure to take into account the ways that the aerosol, clouds, and precipitation can each affect the other, with one effect sometimes compensating or canceling out another. Moreover, those interactions differ in different regions of the world in ways that are still not well understood or represented in climate models.

Feingold and Stevens proposed a new research strategy—a coordinated effort to study cloud system behaviors on timescales of days to seasons. Arrays of sophisticated equipment at the surface and aboard airplanes could be placed to make long-term measurements and to take advantage of “natural” experiments, such as episodes of biomass burning in regions where the meteorological variability is small. Their study was published Oct. 1 in Nature (doi:10.1038/nature08281).

Electric Annie

Annie Reiser and Van de Graaff generator.

Annie Reiser and the Van de Graaff generator. Photo by Will von Dauster, NOAA.

ESRL outreach expert Annie Reiser helped scientist Tom LeFebvre (Global Systems Division) develop a hands-on student exercise with a Van de Graaff generator, which accumulates electrical charge on a metal globe. The exercise demonstrates several effects of static electricity charge and its relationship to atmospheric lightning. It will be unveiled at the 9th annual WeatherFest in Atlanta, Ga. in January. The WeatherFest is a science fair focused on weather, climate, and related fields, held by the American Meteorological Society.


Three researchers in ESRL’s Global Systems Division won Research and Service Initiative Awards from CIRA, the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University. Jacques Middlecoff and Ning Wang were lauded for outstanding performance in helping develop the stateof- the-art global weather and climate prediction model FIM. CIRA gave Sher Schranz the award “for outstanding leadership in the design, development, testing, deployment, and operational support for FX-Net, Gridded FX-Net and Fire Weather Projects.”

Robert (Robin) Webb and Mary Cécile Penland De Garcia (Physical Sciences) were part of a team awarded a Department of Commerce Silver Medal for Scientific/ Engineering Achievement, for their development of the Coral Reef Bleaching Outlook tool. The team was recognized “for providing timely ocean information and capacity for improved global monitoring and management of coral reef ecosystems relative to climate change.”

Scott Woodruff (Physical Sciences) was reselected to serve as the Chair of the Expert Team on Marine Climatology, for the Joint World Meteorological Organization-IOC Technical Committee for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology. The expert team collaborates with international programs to determine procedures and principles for the development and management of global and regional oceanographic and marine meteorological climatological datasets.

Valery Zavorotny (Physical Sciences) was elevated to a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), for contributions to ocean remote sensing and wave propagation in random media.