San Diego Scientists Make Waves In Climate Research
Friday, July 19, 2019
Photo by Erik Anderson
San Diego researchers are collaborating to understand the ocean’s role in the planet’s climate.
The work is happening in a wood-framed building on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus. The structure’s roof mimics the shape of a wave.
Inside is a long glass chute which allows researchers to bring the ocean into the lab.
By replicating waves, which in the ocean influence the atmosphere and the planet’s climate, a scientist can take measurements they could never hope to get in the field.
The managing director of the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment, Christopher Lee, stood beside the steel and glass flume.
“This is the paddle that we have been using to generate the waves. It’s going back and forth, as you can see,” Lee said.
The machine he was standing beside pushes ocean water down a long, narrow channel. That action creates a steady flow of waves which are illuminated by long fluorescent bulbs.
The waves are pushed toward a manufactured incline, a sort of artificial beach.
That incline forces the waves to rise, break and crash. And that action pushes particles and gases into the air.
“That instrument, just across, on the other side of the channel," Lee said as he pointed across the flume, "that’s the instrument from Colorado State University. They’re investigating the ice-nucleating property of sea spray aerosols. Basically, how sea spray aerosol is being emitted, and they’re sampling from right here, are forming ice nucleus which has climate properties.”
Ice nuclei are rare, but when they do get created they tend to encourage rainfall. Understanding the nuclei could help researchers better understand the weather.
All kinds of scientific instruments are clustered near the wave break. The research teams are working to understand as much as possible about what’s happening in the water-filled chute.
“We have continuous measurements of the temperature, dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, and of course chlorophyll which kind of monitors the biomass of these phytoplankton blooms that we are using here in this channel,” Lee said.
Adding microbes to the water is a major change from the first run of experiments which wrapped up last summer.
That project aimed to isolate and measure just sea spray and particles.
This session will allow atmospheric chemist Kim Prather, who is in charge of the lab, to account for many more influences on the ocean including algae blooms, pollution and weather.
Prather pointed across the room as a group of high school students look and listen.
“We’re building another channel which will be here in about a year that will have winds. And that’s where the weather comes in,” Prather said.
The ocean has some of the most significant impacts on the global climate and researchers just don’t understand exactly what’s going on. The work going on in the Scripps lab could go a long way toward understanding the ocean.
“The largest uncertainty in all of climate change is the interaction between that spray and the particles and how they form clouds. That’s the thing we understand the least in the climate system,” Prather said.
The wave machine recreates the ocean in the lab, allowing researchers to figure out processes they would otherwise have no way to understand. That broadens the reach and impact of the work.
“We would just understand how the ocean as a whole influences the chemistry of our atmosphere,” Prather said. “It’s controlling that chemistry. It’s interacting through reactions that some people have never even studied. We’re looking at how humans and mother nature through chemical reactions are completely changing oceans over three-quarters of the surface of the earth.”
The knowledge gained over the next five years could help improve computer models used to predict the planet’s climate. Most of the current computer simulations cannot account for the ocean’s influence.
And sharing that pursuit with high school students serves a purpose that is just as important.
“This is not research that’s in any textbook that they read. And so they can come to see what scientists get to do, they can come to see the passion of the people that are working in that room trying to solve these problems,” Prather said.
The two dozen students that were ushered through the lab recently were all selected because they showed an aptitude for science.
The students listened patiently, asked questions and considered the implications.
One student saw science as a critical baseline that is critical to move the discussion of climate change forward.
“It’s not something that people are making up. And with science, it’s helpful to try to find solutions to this problem that’s continuously causing this planet to warm and it’s going to be affecting my generation as well as the rest of us for the rest of our lives,” said Ella Nghiem from Campbell, California.
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