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NASA grant funds weather/climate research and educational outreach

NASAgrantequipment_t.jpgBOONE—Budding climate scientists in local schools and at Grandfather Mountain will soon be assisting Appalachian State University researchers in their work to better understand potential climate change in western North Carolina.

Chemistry assistant professor Brett Taubman, physics associate professor Jim Sherman and geography assistant professor Baker Perry have been awarded a three-year, $499,970 NASA grant to collect data about particulate matter (aerosols) in the region’s atmosphere, promote climate science awareness, and improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM). The three-year project is dubbed CAN-DOO for Climate Action Network through Direct Observations and Outreach.

Grad Student Ginger Kelly, left, assistant professor Brett Taubman, associate professor Jim Sherman.jpgStudents in two Watauga County elementary schools, as well as visitors to Grandfather Mountain, will learn to record weather and climate data through a NASA-funded project at Appalachian State University. The project is designed to collect data about particulate matter in the region’s atmosphere, promote climate science awareness, and improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Pictured with rain and snow gauges, sun photometers and weather meters that will be provided to the schools are graduate student Ginger Kelly, left, assistant professor Brett Taubman and associate professor Jim Sherman. Also part of the project but not pictured is assistant professor Baker Perry. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Marie Freeman)

“These particles not only impair visibility, they impact human and ecosystem health, and they have a large impact on the climate,” Taubman said. “We have some very unique ecosystems here in the southern Appalachians that are very vulnerable to climate change.”

Taubman said the climate warming that has occurred in other parts of the world and United States has been somewhat masked in the Southeast by aerosol pollution. “Now that we are cleaning up these pollutants, we could potentially experience very rapid climate change here,” he said.

Aerosol pollution, which the public often misunderstands as pollution from spray cans, is caused partially by organic compounds released by plants and trees that react with atmospheric gases to form small particles. These particles scatter or absorb sunlight and change cloud properties and precipitation cycles. They also cause the blue-grey haze that often masks mountain vistas in the region.

Students at Bethel and Hardin Park elementary schools in Watauga County and those in the Home School Science Days and Summer Camp programs at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in southwestern North Carolina will record temperature, precipitation, relative humidity and solar radiation with equipment funded by the grant.

Similar equipment will augment the weather monitoring equipment already in place at Grandfather Mountain, where more than 25,000 visitors a year visit to hike, see the animal habitat and enjoy the vistas. They are equally curious about the mountain’s high winds and extreme winters.

“Our visitors are much more interested in the weather than you might think,” said Operations Manager Crae Morton “Grandfather Mountain has all the extremes that one can imagine, including high winds, record wind chills and ice. Being part of the NASA CAN-DOO  project  provides the opportunity to bridge the gap between the enjoyment and awe that people experience with our weather and the nuts and bolts numbers that make it happen.”

Perry is coordinating the activities at Grandfather Mountain and Bethel Elementary School. “We are excited about the opportunity this grant provides to become more engaged with local elementary school students, expand our partnership with Grandfather Mountain, and share our enthusiasm and interest in the atmosphere, weather and climate,” he said.

Sherman will develop and refine experimental educational modules for use in STEM group activities, provide technical training to naturalists at Grandfather Mountain and develop the data processing algorithms. He also will be the liaison with PARI and will develop climate science activities to be implemented in select physics and global change courses at Appalachian.

Taubman, Perry, graduate student Ginger Kelly and undergraduates from the university are establishing science clubs at the two elementary schools and will lead hands-on, climate science activities after school. The students will record daily precipitation and temperature measurements from sensors and other equipment installed at their schools.

A sun photometer to be installed at AppalAIR, the university’s atmospheric science research facility, will enable the university to join AERONET, NASA’s optical ground-based aerosol
monitoring network and data archive. Through AERONET, a collection of sensors at strategically placed sites across the globe will gather data related to aerosol particles in the atmosphere.

Instruments used by the school-age students will be calibrated with those at Appalachian.

“This isn’t just an academic exercise,” Sherman said. “These students will be performing some pretty high quality measurements at the participating public schools. We believe it’s very important to involve and educate elementary and secondary school age students in climate science so that they can make more informed decisions as citizens in regards to climate science.”

The students also will learn to use GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) cloud charts and a GLOBE-developed protocol to visually estimate cloud cover, identify cloud types and assess sky conditions.

The students and their teachers will learn to analyze the data they collect to better understand how aerosol particles in the atmosphere are affecting the local climate. Students also will assess the local variability of temperature, precipitation and cloud cover.

Home schooled students in the PARI programs will conduct similar activities.

Beginning this summer, visitors to Grandfather Mountain will be able to assist staff with climate data collection, including sun-photometer, aerosols, water vapor and precipitation measurements.

Informational displays at Grandfather Mountain will educate the public about the basics of climate science and climate research conducted by NASA and CAN-DOO participants.

All the data will be recorded, charted and compared with data collected at AppalAIR and by NASA.

The Appalachian researchers hope that the information collected will help students, citizens and politicians better understand climate science.

“We are always trying to expand our knowledge base, but we also need to expand that to the general public,” Taubman said. “As scientists, we don’t make the decisions about mitigating climate change. It is current and future policymakers who have that responsibility. We need to help them be as well informed as possible.”