Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Island President and me

Ok, so this blog has gotten a little dormant.  It's been a busy semester for your faithful correspondent, and with DYNAMO over, my focus has been elsewhere.  The MJO has actually been pretty exciting, but that's not what I'm writing about today.

The film "The Island President", a documentary about former President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives by director Jon Shenk, opened in New York last week.  I had wanted to see this for some time and finally got the chance.  So on Sunday, I went with my wife and kids down to the Film Forum in lower Manhattan where it was showing.  And who do you think we saw there, totally unexpected?  THE ISLAND PRESIDENT, Nasheed himself!  The photo is kind of crummy, but hopefully you can tell it's him, next to me and my 13 year-old son Eli:

If you want to convince yourself it's the right guy, compare it to some of the press photos from the movie.  It was completely amazing to see him there.  He had essentially no entourage, just the film's producer was with him when I introduced myself.  I told him I was a climate scientist who had been there for DYNAMO.  He didn't seem to know what I was talking about until I mentioned being on Gan island in particular, and then he did.  I would have liked to talk to him longer but the movie was about to start, and anyway I was too star-struck and tongue-tied and didn't want to take advantage of him for being such a low-key, friendly man of the people.

After the movie, he did a 20 minute Q&A with the audience, which I got on video.   Here is a very short clip from it:

 Ain't it the truth what he says?

About the movie:  it's excellent.  So much recent history there.  Of the Maldives, and its transition (unfortunately recently reversed) to a democracy, with President Nasheed being so much the leader of that, and having sacrificed so much for it in his life;  and of the climate negotiations, in Copenhagen in 2009 and elsewhere.  Shenk and his crew had amazing access to the President and his inner circle.  One gets a real sense of being on the inside of these huge - if ultimately disappointing - events, and also of Nasheed as a person and as a leader.  It's particularly impressive how much attention he has been able to draw to global warming and the plight of low-lying, small island states, just by being charismatic, articulate and forceful.

I highly recommend the film to anyone.  Besides all the inspiring aspects of the story, it also features a lot of beautiful footage of the Maldives.  If the film does well, it may help draw positive attention both to the plight of that small country, and to the global issue of climate change, which still so sorely needs it (especially here in the USA).  Those who don't like Al Gore's onscreen personality might well find Mohamed Nasheed more compelling.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

DYNAMO suspended after Maldivian president ousted

Field operations for DYNAMO in the Maldives have been suspended because of the political unrest there.  This situation is sad on many different levels.

A few days ago, the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, resigned amid protest.  He has stated that he was forced to resign by the police at gunpoint.  The police are apparently loyal to forces affiliated with the previous government, an autocratic and repressive one which was in place for 30 years before Nasheed became president in 2008.

Nasheed had by all credible accounts made the Maldives a much more democratic and free country since taking office.  He had also become famous worldwide for his leadership stance on global warming.  The Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world, made up of very flat islands in coral atolls.  It won't take much sea level rise to make them disappear.  This is the case for quite a few small island states, and they are all concerned, but Nasheed has been more successful than others in drawing attention to their precarious situation.  A couple of years ago, as a publicity stunt, he held a cabinet meeting on the sea bottom with all the ministers in scuba gear.  His strong speech at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen also contributed to making him a celebrity.  A documentary film has recently been made about him;  one can't easily see it at the moment but a six minute piece by the director, Jon Shenk, has been put up on the NY Times web page just a couple days ago due to the new strife.

I am not an expert on the politics and history of the Maldives, so I don't want to try to analyze the current situation in detail.  There has been quite a bit of news coverage in the last few days (it doesn't make the front pages here in the US, but you can easily find it if you google) and if you read all that you'll know about as much as I do.  But it's pretty clear that under Nasheed the Maldives made a big step forward to becoming a better place, and now they are in the midst of taking a big step back.  To get a sense of some of the forces at work here, read about the vandalism in the national museum, in which priceless artifacts of the Maldives' Buddhist past were destroyed.

Reports are that Addu Atoll has seen some of the most violence and repression in recent days, with government buildings being attacked, and people being detained and treated harshly.  This is of course where the remaining DYNAMO scientists and staff were located.  I can't disagree with the project leadership's decision to pull them all out;  things are just getting too scary.  But it's sad.  The climate will lose a champion if Nasheed isn't reinstated;  now climate science is going to lose out in another way.

I guess the silver lining for DYNAMO is that we were already in the "extended observing period" - the primary part of the experiment, when the most observations were taken, has been over for more than a month.  We already knew we were lucky that the MJO cooperated so well by showing up and going through two strong active phases during our two short months of intensive observing.  Now in hindsight, we can say we were also lucky that the government didn't fall until now.

I can't imagine that's much comfort to the Maldivian people though.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Article in UCAR Magazine

The online magazine "AtmosNews" published by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR;  they also run NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, CO) has a nice article about the MJO and DYNAMO by science writer Bob Henson.  It features our blog in a little sidebar.  

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mom, where do atmospheric data come from?

The basic sources of data for the upper air - above the surface of the earth - are radiosondes (aka weather balloons) and satellites.  (There are some others, like measurements from commercial aircraft and ground-based remote sensors, but overall these are less important.)

Radiosondes are in some ways still the "best" source of data, because they provide true in situ measurements.  That means one is sticking a probe into the actual system one wants to measure - the atmosphere - at the place one actually wants to measure it.  Radiosondes provide measurements of temperature, humidity, wind, and pressure with (generally) high accuracy at all levels throughout the troposphere and into some of the stratosphere, if nothing goes wrong and causes the balloon to break prematurely.  Over some regions at least - for example, the continental US - there are enough of them to define the horizontal structure of the flow pretty well.  On the other hand, there are large regions of the earth - most of the oceans, many developing countries, Antarctica - where radiosonde launch sites are sparse to nonexistent.  If sondes were all we had, we wouldn't know much about what the atmosphere were doing over these places at any given moment.

Satellites are great this way.  They have a few different types of orbits (geostationary, polar orbiters...) but one way or another they survey large chunks of real estate on a regular basis.  They don't care what the map beneath looks like (except inasmuch as the nature of the earth's surface may affect the measurements themselves, e.g., some instruments work better over ocean vs. land).

The down side of satellites, on the other hand, is that they are remote sensors.  They don't make in situ measurements, which means that they don't directly measure the properties of the atmosphere.  They measure properties of the radiation coming up to space, and infer from that some desired property of the atmosphere below - temperature, rainfall etc.  This can only be done so well.

A particular limitation of satellites is their relative lack of vertical resolution - they can tell you what the temperature is (for example) but they can't tell you with perfect precision at what height is it that temperature.  The radiation coming up from the atmosphere tends can in general have been emitted from more than one particular height in the atmosphere - nothing tags the photons to indicate precisely what altitude they came from.  Two photons coming from different levels look the same as two coming from the same level.  So to the extent that the properties of the photons carry information about the atmosphere, that information is mixed together from different levels.  To get a feeling for this, here's an imperfect analogy:  imagine dropping your keys into a swimming pool (or your other favorite body of water) and watching them as they fall straight down.  How accurately do you think you could tell at any given point how deep they have gone?

There is a whole sophisticated science of remote sensing whose job it is to get around this problem, and due to both improvements in the physical instruments on the satellites and the "retrieval algorithms" (mathematical methods used to turn the measurements of radiation into temperature etc.) it gets better all the time.  But satellites will probably never truly be able to beat radiosondes at their own game, which is high-resolution vertical profiles of atmospheric variables at a single horizontal location.  They don't have to, though;  to the extent that we have both types of measurements, we can use each one to compensate for the weakness of the others.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Intensive -> Extended

The "Intensive Observing Period" of DYNAMO has ended, but the experiment is not over.  We are now in the "Extended Observing Period".  What this means is that a lot of the instruments and people are being (or have already been) packed up and shipped home, but some are still out there in the Indian ocean for a few more months.  In particular, we are down to one radiosonde and surface observation site, Gan (in the Indian ocean;  one more, Manus, in the Pacific);  one radar (SMART-R, also at Gan);  no airplanes;  and no ships, if I'm not mistaken.  There are still many more measurements being taken in this spot every day than there would be if DYNAMO weren't still happening, but many fewer than there were for the first couple of months.

Why do we do drag it out like this?  Why are there multiple phases of an experiment?  If we know what we want to measure, why don't we just measure it as long as we need to and then stop when the job is done - or when we can't afford it any more?

Field experiments exist to address several different types of gaps in the regular observational network.  The different phases of the experiment exist because those different needs require different balances between (for lack of a better phrase) the intensity of the observational effort - the frequency, redundancy, density of spatial coverage, and range of different types of observations being taken - and the length of time over which those observations are taken.  In our dreams, we would like all the observations we can imagine to be taken continuously forever, but in reality we have to make compromises.  The different periods reflect an attempt to make different kinds of compromises so as to satisfy different sorts of needs within a single experiment.  To understand this more deeply, it is useful to know a bit about where our more routine observations of the atmosphere - the ones that are used every day for weather prediction and climate monitoring - come from.  I'll write more about this in the next post.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Observations of the Supressed Stage from Gan

Hi All,

I'm the latest (last?) scientist contributor to this blog to arrive on Gan. I thought I might use one post to give my two cents on the resurrected/reborn debate. It's certainly something that we at S-PolKa have been talking a lot about over the past few weeks. If you look closely at the Hovmoeller diagram that Adam posted a few days ago, you could convince yourself that there is a slight bit of blue slanting up and to the right, connecting the latest MJO with the previous event. If this were a true connection it would imply that the previous MJO had stalled then propagated westward (from the fringe of phase 5 back into phase 4), and finally changed course and began its normal eastward motion. I think the soundings from Gan tell a different story though. If you look at the buildup of moisture and westerly winds that marked the beginning of the most recent MJO, the moisture is clearly building in from the west. As the westerly winds get deeper, so does the moisture.

In my mind, if the previous MJO event was moving from east to west into our domain and restrengthening here, then the winds during the buildup of moisture should have had at least some easterly component. It doesn't make sense to me that the previous MJO feature could be propagating westward while simultaneously generating intensifying moist westerlies. Am I missing some dynamical piece of the MJO that would allow for this to happen? Granted, Gan (longitude ~73E) was on the far left fringe of the latest event, so our soundings may not have been representative of what was happening in the eastern portion of the basin, but to me this looks like a new event.

The downside of having something interesting to talk about is that we now have most definitely transitioned into the suppressed stage over Gan. The time-height plot of moisture and winds over the past month looks like this,

and the daily rainfall estimates from S-PolKa look like this:

With the exception of those three days at the end of 2011, we've now been precip free for the better part of two weeks. Our column-integrated total precipitatable water estimates have been hovering around 40 mm, certainly on the lower side of the low end for this part of the world.

Despite all this dry air limiting our radar to observing nothing but non-precipitating shallow clouds, there has been one benefit. The lack of moisture and pollution in the atmosphere has allowed for some of the bluest skies I've ever seen. Really pretty stuff. The sunsets aren't bad either.