Top research accomplishments of 2012
NOAA scientists advance climate, ocean and atmospheric science in record-setting year
Dec. 18, 2012
updated Jan. 14, 2013
Contact: Jana Goldman, 301-734-1123
The year just ending is one of new records: the lowest Arctic sea ice minimum since satellites records began in 1979; the United States’ most widespread drought, second only to the drought of the 1930s in area affected; and virtual certainty that 2012 will be the United States’ warmest year on record.
And as these climate trends unfolded, scientists in the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, or NOAA Research, made significant discoveries that further our abilities to understand the changes and their impacts on our weather and natural environment. NOAA Research’s mission goes well beyond climate change, also encompassing air quality, atmospheric, and weather forecasting research, and ocean exploration. 2012 brought noteworthy discoveries in these areas too.
With a focus on science that serves society, NOAA scientists made new discoveries, collected valuable data, and provided information throughout 2012 to guide policymakers’ decisions. Here are some of NOAA Research’s top accomplishments of 2012.
NOAA Air Resources Laboratory in College Park, Md.
ARL developed improved technique to model atmospheric radiation transport following Fukushima nuclear accident : After the Japan earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima disaster of 2011, ARL scientists developed an improved way to model atmospheric radiation transport. In March 2012, ARL’s Roland Draxler and Glenn Rolph published a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres that reports on a way to more quickly provide operational plume forecasts in real-time by continuously updating the previous day's simulations as new meteorological data become available.
ARL participated in airborne mercury study: The release of mercury to the atmosphere, followed by deposition on land and in water, is often the dominant way mercury gets into water bodies and watersheds. Human exposure to mercury is primarily from the consumption of contaminated fish and other aquatic organisms. In August, ARL scientists, Xinrong Ren, Steve Brooks, and Winston Luke, collaborated with the University of Tennessee Space Institute in an aircraft and ground-level mercury study to improve understanding of the vertical distribution of mercury and emission sources. Results of the first phase of the study revealed that there are higher concentrations of oxidized mercury in the air than at ground level. Early modeling analyses show higher levels when the air masses arrived from the north and west and lower levels when they arrived from the south. Measuring and modeling the vertical distribution of mercury in the air provides important information regarding emission sources, both natural and man-made.
NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, Fla.
Scientists show climate patterns may influence extreme U.S. tornado seasons: The record-breaking U.S. tornado outbreaks in the spring of 2011 caused unprecedented destruction, leaving citizens and scientists wondering what caused the season to produce so many strong tornados. NOAA’s AOML and university researchers believe they have found a climate signal related to a specific phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that could be linked to, and possibly serve as a predictor of, such massive tornado outbreaks. The study, published in September 2012 the Journal of Climate, describes a link between a phenomenon scientists describe as "Trans-Niño" and the large-scale atmospheric patterns over the central United States which contribute to tornado outbreaks.
NOAA’s hurricane ‘early responders’ took to the air to monitor Hurricane Sandy and collect critical observations: AOML’s hurricane researchers spent four hectic days in October gathering data to provide accurate forecasts about Hurricane Sandy. The late season Atlantic storm swept up the eastern seaboard, imperiling an estimated 50 million people. AOML Hurricane Research Division scientists gathered observations from within the inner core of Sandy aboard one of NOAA’s P-3 aircraft, while NOAA’s Gulfstream-IV high altitude jet sampled the regions above and surrounding Sandy, including the mid-latitude weather systems to the north and west of Sandy’s center that interacted with the storm and determined its unusual track. Global Positioning System dropwinsondes measured Sandy’s atmospheric pressure, humidity, winds, and temperature. Tail Doppler radar observations enabled researchers to obtain three-dimensional depictions of Sandy’s powerful winds and the regions of heaviest precipitation. These highly-accurate, real-time data were fed into numerical models and used by the National Hurricane Center to keep government officials, emergency managers, the media, and the public informed with up-to-date forecasts days in advance of Sandy’s landfall.
NOAA Climate Program Office
By Air, Land, and Sea: Exploring the Mysteries of the Madden-Julian Oscillation: The Madden–Julian Oscillation, or "MJO," is the largest element of intraseasonal variability in the tropical atmosphere. The MJO is responsible for sending both enhanced and suppressed waves of tropical rainfall eastward across the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. In 2012, NOAA's Climate Program Office (CPO) directly supported an international, U.S. interagency research effort — known as "DYNAMO," for Dynamics of the Madden-Julian Oscillation — to collect in situ observations of the ocean and the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. The NOAA Climate Program Office provided funding for the use of a NOAA WP-3D aircraft and ship time on the research vessel Roger Revelle, and supported 21 researchers including NOAA/OAR scientists and external grantees. The observations collected during DYNAMO will help scientists advance their understanding of the MJO, and improve long-range weather forecasts and seasonal outlooks worldwide — perhaps even making the leap to longer-term forecasts of climate extending years into the future.
New National Climate Assessment Report Estimates Global Mean Sea Level Rise: On Dec. 6, NOAA released a report that estimates global mean sea-level rise over the next century based on a comprehensive synthesis of existing scientific literature.The report finds that there is very high confidence (greater than 9 in 10 chances) that global mean sea level (starting in 1992) will rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meters) and no more than 6.6 feet (2 meters) by 2100, depending upon uncertainties associated with ice sheet loss and ocean warming. The report was authored by a panel of scientists from multiple federal agencies and academic institutions, and will be used to support the National Climate Assessment — a U.S. interagency report produced once every four years to summarize the science and impacts of climate change on the United States. Adam Parris of NOAA's Climate Program Office served as report lead author, with contributions from many CPO-funded scientists.
International Argo Float Network Celebrates 1 Million Ocean Profiling Milestone: NOAA's Climate Program Office designs, deploys, and maintains an integrated global network of oceanic and atmospheric observing instruments to produce continuous records and analyses of a range of ocean and atmosphere parameters. In 2012, the Argo program, a global array of more than 3,000 autonomous ocean-monitoring floats, collected its one-millionth profile of ocean salinity and temperature – a critical milestone in ocean observing science. To put this achievement into context, since the 1890s, oceanographers have collected only about 500,000 profiles in the upper 1,000 meters and only about 200,000 to 2,000 meters of the ocean's surface. It took Argo floats a dozen years to reach 1 million profiles at these depths, and, but will only take eight years to collect the next million profiles. The use of this sustained dataset can improve projections of sea level rise, better our understanding of climate variability, and offer insights into ocean heat circulation.
NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.
Greenhouse gases and climate change: In the spring of 2012, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time at Arctic stations -- NOAA monitoring sites picked up that foreboding new milestone. For perspective, before the Industrial Revolution of the 1880s, global average carbon dioxide level was about 280 ppm. But in August this year, NOAA researchers and colleagues also determined that Earth’s oceans, forests and other ecosystems continue to soak up about half the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by human activities, even as those emissions have increased. That trend cannot continue indefinitely, the scientists noted.
Antarctic ozone hole second smallest in 20 years: Warmer air temperatures high above the Antarctic led to the second smallest seasonal ozone hole in 20 years, according to NOAA and NASA satellite measurements. This year, the average size of the ozone hole was 6.9 million square miles (17.9 million square kilometers). The ozone layer helps shield life on Earth from potentially harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation that can cause skin cancer and damage plants.
Pollution in the United State: Progress, Challenges: An international team, including researchers from ESRL and the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, found that while ozone pollution is decreasing in rural areas of the eastern United States, the U.S. West is experiencing steady or increasing amounts of ozone pollution. The findings from this study, along with an earlier study in 2012, suggest that outside of urban areas, imported pollution from Asia may be partially counteracting successful U.S. efforts to reduce pollution emissions. In a third study led by ESRL and CIRES, scientists showed that in California’s Los Angeles Basin, levels of some vehicle-related air pollutants have decreased by about 98 percent since the 1960s, even as area residents now burn three times as much gasoline and diesel fuel.
Findings about fires: ESRL and CIRES researchers shed new light on wildfires. One study showed that soot particles from wildfires trap additional heat in the atmosphere, beyond that trapped by soot from other sources. Oils from partially burned vegetation can coat the wildfire soot, which focuses more light onto the soot and increases the warming by 50-70 percent. Another study led by ESRL and CIRES researchers showed that a smoke-related chemical linked to human health effects, isocyanic acid, may be a significant air pollutant in some parts of the world, especially where forest fires and other forms of biomass burning are common.
Methane from the sea: In April, ESRL researchers were part of a team that found elevated levels of the greenhouse gas methane above cracks in Arctic sea ice. A multiagency airborne study in Nature Geoscience also presented initial evidence that shallow water geological deposits, known as methane hydrates, are not currently sending substantial amounts of methane into the atmosphere, but bacteria are producing methane.
NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J.
Endangered marine turtles threatened by climate change: Assessing the potential impacts of climate change on marine life is essential to protect ecosystems and biodiversity. Marine turtles must lay eggs on sandy beaches where climate change can affect both their land and sea habitats. GFDL scientists and colleagues studied a population of critically endangered eastern Pacific leatherback turtles nesting on the northwest coast of Costa Rica, to assess its sensitivity to climate variability in the nesting beach and ocean. Mature females’ success in finding food in the ocean, and the success of nests on the beach, varies with the El Niño Southern Oscillation. This study, published in Nature Climate Change in July, combined an Earth system model, climate model projections, and a population dynamics model to estimate a 7 percent per decade decline in the nesting population at Playa Grande, Costa Rica over the 21st century, primarily due to the negative impacts of increased air temperature on hatchling survival from the nest. These projections suggest that climate change could drive eastern Pacific leatherbacks to disappear in Costa Rica, even in the absence of incidental fisheries by-catch mortality. Their findings suggest that shading and irrigating leatherback nests could help sustain the population.
Heat waves over North America -- projections for the 21st century: Heat waves in North America precipitate a substantial number of human casualties and huge economic costs. Understanding the processes that contribute to heat waves and projecting changes in them in the 21st century, are an integral part of NOAA’s mission. Researchers at GFDL evaluated the fidelity of GFDL climate models in reproducing the characteristics of summertime heat waves in different parts of North America, and produced model-projected changes of these characteristics in the 21st century. Published in July in the Journal of Climate, these model projections indicate considerable lengthening of heat wave duration, as well as notable increases in the frequency of heat wave episodes during the 21st century, compared to the 20th century. The upward trends in heat wave duration and frequency are projected to be discernible in the early decades of the 21st century.
Transport of Asian ozone pollution into surface air over the western United States: As Asian countries develop, they emit more ozone precursors that pollute surface level air. Many studies have documented this pollution being carried by air currents to the western United States. To determine the extent to which this pollution is affecting air quality in the western U.S., researchers including GFDL scientists analyzed balloon soundings, aircraft, surface and satellite measurements from May through June 2010 using GFDL’s new global high-resolution chemistry-climate model. Their findings, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmosphere, indicate that Asian pollution contributes as much as 20 percent of total ozone during springtime pollution episodes in western U.S. surface air. Although local pollution plays a large role on days when ozone exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency standard in Southern California, the authors estimate that 53 percent of the instances where that limit was exceeded would not have occurred without the contribution from Asian air pollution. This research also showed that an index based on satellite observations of Asian pollution plumes could serve as an early warning indicator, with a lead time of up to three days, of Asian pollution influence on western U.S. air quality.
NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.
New NOAA experimental tool offers customizable views of Great Lakes water level data: The new NOAA Great Lakes Water Level Dashboard offers interactive displays of any combination of historical, current, and projected water levels for all of the North American Great Lakes. Environmental researchers, educators and students, and Great Lakes region residents are among those who can use this online tool to quickly access desired slices of water level data. Introduced at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in December, the dashboard is designed to show the ups and downs of the world’s largest freshwater system. It draws from both experimental and operational data sets and forecasts from a variety of regional sources. Among its other benefits, the dashboard allows users to gain a perspective on the relative magnitude of seasonal, year-to-year and decade-to-decade water level changes.
NOAA Great Lakes researchers join U.S.-Canadian study of Lake Huron ecosystem: In order to better understand Lake Huron environmental trends, the GLERL joined an international effort to study invasive species, water quality, fisheries and climate change last spring. Scientists need to understand how the ecosystem of Lake Huron functions to effectively manage it for water quality and fish production. GLERL joined several federal, state and provincial agencies in the 2012 Lake Huron Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative, a joint U.S.-Canadian program, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes National Program Office and Environment Canada.
NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.
Field project to study thunderstorm impacts on upper atmosphere: More than 100 researchers from NOAA and other organizations collaborated on a field project to discover how thunderstorms act like elevators, taking pollution and water-rich air from the surface and lofting it straight into the upper atmosphere. Deep Convective Clouds and Chemistry was the first project to take a comprehensive look at the chemistry and thunderstorm details, including air movement, cloud physics, and electrical activity. Investigators expect the data to create the best picture yet of chemical transport, production and processing by thunderstorms.
NSSL researchers join large, international flash flood project in Europe: In September, NSSL researchers joined the Hydrological Cycle in the Mediterranean Experiment (HyMeX), the largest weather field research project in European history. HyMeX is a 10-year international effort to better understand, quantify and model the hydrologic cycle in support of improved forecasts and warnings of flash floods in the Mediterranean region. NSSL’s mobile Doppler radar was used to provide high-resolution data and low-altitude scans to help determine the size of raindrops, the intensity of rainfall, and rainfall rates to help predict flash flooding conditions in the Cevénnes Vivarais region of France.
Researchers plan first extensive U.S. study looking for a link between cities and storms: A group of researchers, including NSSL’s Dave Stensrud, plan to study the effects of cities on thunderstorms. Looking at a number of different U.S. cities, the project hopes to clarify how urban pollution, canopy, and surrounding landscape influence the intensity and track of an approaching thunderstorm.
NOAA Office of Exploration and Research
The NOAA Office of Exploration and Research (OER) explored poorly known regions of the Gulf of Mexico extensively in 2012. Key accomplishments included investigating previously unknown features, species and deepwater habitats, as well as testing new techniques using equipment mounted on a remotely-operated vehicle to measure the rate that gas rises from seafloor seeps. The expeditions discovered areas of rich biodiversity, including at the base of the West Florida Escarpment, an undersea cliff-like ridge, where explorers found a 'forest' of deep corals, several of which were new to scientists. Telepresence technology sent images from the seafloor and other data live to scientists and other audiences ashore. Some 80,000 persons ashore watched parts of the expedition live, including the discovery of an 1800’s shipwreck that adds to the unwritten pages of our history.
OER conceived of and led the Atlantic Canyons Undersea Mapping Expeditions a collaboration between four NOAA offices, five U.S. states and academic institutions during which three NOAA ships spent a total of 50 days mapping and ground-truthing northeastern canyons from Virginia to Massachusetts. These included all or part of 36 canyons, and provided critical baseline information to meet a key principle of the NOAA Habitat Blueprint – to integrate and improve delivery of habitat science across disciplines so as to facilitate conservation actions.
In 2012, OER continued to lead the nation’s Extended Continental Shelf initiative, supporting two bathymetric cruises that mapped ocean areas equivalent to the size of West Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined. An expedition to the Arctic Ocean expedition also acquired baseline information about habitats, biodiversity, submarine canyons, seamounts, weather and ice observations and measurements of ocean acidification that will inform researchers and ocean resource managers in this fastest-changing part of our ocean world. The initiative represents the largest and potentially most significant interagency marine survey ever undertaken by the United States, and is likely to extend the ocean shelf, equivalent to an area twice the size of California, with seabed energy, mineral and living marine resources worth many billions, if not trillions, of dollars.
NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Wash.
New study shows direct link between ocean acidity and oyster larvae mortality: PMEL’s Richard Feely is one of the authors of a study published in April in Limnology and Oceanography providing the first concrete evidence in North America that carbon dioxide being taken up by the oceans is killing oyster larvae. Scientists found that when oyster larvae were exposed to deep, more corrosive waters they did not survive to adulthood. Larvae death threatens an industry with a $278 million annual economic value as estimated for 2009 by the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
NOAA Vents scientists discover precursor to undersea eruption: Papers published in June in Nature Geoscience on the submarine volcano Axial Seamount present, for the first time, precursory signals recorded by seafloor instruments before an undersea volcanic eruption. PMEL and Oregon State University scientists Bill Chadwick and Bob Dziak suggest that such signals could be used to issue both long-term and short-term forecasts of future eruptions at the site.
PMEL-led study describes changing Arctic winds: A study led by PMEL's James Overland, published in the Oct. 10 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, shows how changes in summer Arctic wind patterns contribute not only to unprecedented loss of Arctic sea ice, but could also bring about shifts in North American and European weather. Overland and others shows a change in the summer Arctic wind pattern over the past six years when compared to patterns for the previous 20 years.
NOAA National Sea Grant Program
Sea Grant researchers find caffeine in Pacific Northwest coastal waters: In July, a study revealed that traces of caffeine in Pacific Northwest waters point to a likely source of the stimulant: septic tanks and sewer overflows. Results of the study, funded in part by Oregon Sea Grant and NOAA, were published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin. The study was conducted by scientists at Portland State University and Washington State University, Vancouver. This research, the first to look at caffeine contamination off the Oregon coast, found elevated levels of caffeine at several sites in Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of Oregon—though not necessarily where researchers expected. Scientists analyzed samples from 14 Oregon coastal locations and seven adjacent water bodies. The study found high caffeine levels at two areas not near potential pollution sources such as waste water treatment plants. They also measured low levels of caffeine near large population centers like Astoria/Warrenton and Coos Bay and found that caffeine levels spiked following a late-season storm of wind and rain that triggered sewer overflows. The results suggest that wastewater treatment plants are effective at removing caffeine, but that high rainfall and combined sewer overflows flush the contaminants out to sea. The results also suggest that septic tanks, such as those used at the state parks, may be less effective at containing pollution.
'Lifesaving'Sea Grant mobile technology device aids rip current identification and benefits National Weather Service: In preparation for the summer and in time for Rip Current Awareness Week (June 3-9) the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium debuted a brand new mobile device technology to collect and distribute up-to-the-minute rip current data and related information. This smartphone app helps lifeguards identify and catalog rip current occurrences on their own beaches, while giving them a glimpse at what neighboring communities are experiencing in real time. Developed at Sea Grant’s request by a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and several of his students, the app could prove invaluable to both local lifeguards and the National Weather Service which plans to use information collected through the app to evaluate its rip current forecasts. The information will help scientists understand more about when and where rip currents occur, and under what conditions they are most prevalent.
Sea Grant research leads to first commercial enterprise cultivating edible kelp in U.S. waters: In 2010, for the first time ever, Sea Grant researchers were able to grow sugar kelp in culture through an entire life cycle. Connecticut Sea Grant and Ocean Approved LLC (a Portland, Maine, kelp farming company) began working with mussel farms in New England to add this native, edible seaweed as a secondary crop. Kelp sequesters nitrogen and other pollutants, enhancing water quality. Now, in 2012, Ocean Approved, in partnership with Connecticut and Maine Sea Grant researchers, grows and harvests kelp for products such as kelp noodles and kelp pickles, available through Whole Foods and a dozen other food retailers in New England, New York and California. Kelp supplies key ingredients for medicines, cosmetics, fertilizers and food products ranging from sushi wrappers to ice cream thickeners. Sea Grant is paving the way for sugar kelp and offshore mussel culture to offer environmentally friendly, sustainable economic opportunities for our nation’s coastal communities.
Bringing back the fish – Michigan Sea Grant oversees successful habitat reconstruction: To compensate for habitat loss in the Detroit River, Michigan Sea Grant and partners constructed two reef projects, aiming to enhance native fish reproduction and restore fish habitat. In 2012, researchers confirmed that lake sturgeon successfully deposited and fertilized eggs on the reefs and that the eggs produced viable sturgeon larvae. Post-construction assessments are planned to ensure that the Middle Channel Reefs are being used by a variety of fish species. Two more spawning reefs for native fish are planned for the St. Clair River in 2013 and 2014, as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
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