Wednesday, September 16, 2009

North by Northwest – S'COOL on First Leg of Ocean Passage

NASA's S'COOL project is now underway in a part of the world where few have sailed before: the open waters of the Northwest Passage.

S'COOL, Students' Cloud Observations On-Line, is one of eight scientific experiments onboard the ship Ocean Watch as it journeys around the Americas to help promote ocean health awareness. S'COOL was invited to be part of the expedition by the Around the Americas (ATA) project, a 13-month adventure that includes visits to 31 ports in 12 countries, where the Ocean Watch crew will promote public education and awareness about ocean science and marine conservation.

The Northwest Passage is one of the most awaited legs of the voyage; ten years ago, navigating through the icy region was nearly impossible.

A sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the passage runs through the Arctic Circle along the northern coast of North America. From west to east, it flows through the Bering Strait, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and other waterways that weave around the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It continues through Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait until meeting the Atlantic.

Dr. Lin Chambers, the S’COOL program’s project director from NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., is both thrilled and concerned about the opportunity to collect S’COOL data in the Northwest Passage.

“Having S’COOL onboard the Ocean Watch is very exciting,” said Chambers, “This is definitely the first time we’ve been able to have cloud observation reports from open water. But the sad reality about gathering data while in the Northwest Passage is that the route was once impassable. Now, with the melting of Arctic summer sea ice, it is passable."

For centuries, explorers have attempted to use the Northwest Passage as a trade route, but the Arctic pack ice prevented most of the attempts. The first successful crossing was in 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen – a difficult three-year voyage in a converted 47-ton herring boat. Due to the effects of climate change in recent years, the reduced pack ice causes Arctic shrinkage and allows ships, such as Ocean Watch, to transit its waterways over a few summer months.

The Ocean Watch crew, led by veteran circumnavigator Mark Schrader, includes scientists, a journalist, a photographer and an onboard educator. Together, they work to keep the ship safely on its course while managing a variety of tasks, from cooking meals and handling navigational duties to conducting scientific experiments. They also work together to educate the public about the conditions of the oceans’ health and its vital impact on our planet.

Zeta Strickland, Ocean Watch’s onboard educator, has high expectations about the results of the expedition.

"We hope people will understand that ocean health is an issue that needs to be addressed," said Strickland. "We are already seeing some parts of the oceans become increasingly acidic which has serious consequences for fish and other marine life. In the polar areas, increased water temperatures are resulting in more ice melt each summer that affects all animals including seals, shorebirds and polar bears. The changes these animals are facing is already having big impacts in the human communities throughout the regions."

During port stops throughout the trip, Strickland’s role as an educator gives her opportunities to teach others about these issues. She and the crew address ocean and environmental concerns to the local community, emphasizing that everything done on land affects the oceans.

They also use these visits to teach the public, especially children, about the S’COOL program.

"When we’ve been able to match our location to the satellite overpass times, we’ve been taking cloud observations,” explained Strickland. “We plan to share the information with the communities we visit and teach them how to make S’COOL reports."

The S’COOL information is useful for NASA Langley researchers who use it to verify data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites that carry a NASA instrument called CERES (Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System.) The students’ work helps researchers to double-check the satellite instruments' measurements that can, in certain conditions, record more or less cloud cover than actually exists.

S’COOL observations, such as reports about contrails -- a type of cloud completely attributable to human activities made by the exhaust of aircraft engines -- provide scientists with useful information about the atmosphere. Due to their thinness, contrails are difficult for satellites to detect. And since changes in the amount of cloudiness can affect the climate, the thin contrail "clouds" are of great interest to researchers.

The S’COOL program has, since its inception in 1997, grown from a collaboration of NASA Langley scientists and several schools near NASA Langley to a more global program, with participation from schools in 78 countries.

S’COOL joins other experiments onboard Ocean Watch that include a jellyfish survey, a buoy that measures air pressure and sea surface temperature, and a study of the frequency and occurrence of whitecaps on breaking waves to evaluate their role in the air-sea transfer of heat, energy and the production of natural aerosols.

JISAO, the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at University of Washington, Seattle, is also partnering on the project. JISAO is gathering information about atmospheric aerosols in areas of the world where little or no data has been collected. Using a Microtops II sun photometer, the data will be compared to NASA’s satellite-based aerosol measurements and supplement NASA’s ground-based photometer network.

Ocean Watch is scheduled to finish its transit of the Northwest Passage in mid-September with Canadian port calls in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Sailing south to the U.S., it will make stops in Boston; Newport, R.I.; New York; Charleston, S.C.; and Miami. The ship and crew will then sail to countries in the southern hemisphere of the Americas. Ocean Watch will return to U.S. waters in spring 2010.

Kris Ludwig, oceanographer and ATA project manager, echoes the feelings of the ship’s crew for more ocean health awareness.

"We hope to inspire people who interact with the project to better understand that humans and the ocean are inextricably linked - humans affect the oceans and the oceans affect the humans."

Related Links:

> NASA's S'COOL Program: Students' Cloud Observations On-Line
> Around the Americas
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