Thanks to an infinitely gracious person, I was able to “do science” during my scouting trip to Greenland.
For some, it may be enough to see a great picture of Pluto. For scientists, there is a lot more to know. Curiosity extends to invisible wavelengths, and to dynamic processes going back to the origin of the planet. They are not necessarily looking for sensational findings – although that helps get funding from government and public sources – as much as they seek understanding and insight.
As soon as we look beyond the surface, Nature, as we call it, looks unbelievably complex. Science’s triumph is to be able to find regularities in that complexity, and to express them in beautiful conciseness. When we understand the Navier-Stokes equations, or the Maxwell equations, or thermodynamic cycles, or even Laplace and Fourier transforms, it is as if blinders had come off our eyes. We never see the world the same way again.
The processes behind climate change are extremely complex. Something as specific as how dust or black carbon ends up on ice and snow was not well understood until the 80s. It’s all the more difficult to figure out something as large and as dynamic as how the ocean stores carbon and releases it. Scientists give us that understanding, so that armed with interpretations of the world that describe its regularities, we can take effective action.
Because the Greenland icecap is so enormous (about three Texas large – and we know Texas is BIG) we want to know the exact mechanisms and dynamics of its melting, not just at the level of “it’s melting” but down to considerable precision. We want to understand the drivers – and to know about any positive feedback loops. A lot of factors go into that, some local and some global. For instance, black carbon from faraway forest fires gets transported in the atmosphere and either gets captured by falling snow crystals or lands on the snow on the ground. These particles change the albedo of the snow, increasing its ability to absorb solar radiation, and therefore making it easier for it to melt.
I took snow samples along our route on the Schweizerland Alps glaciers to help Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj build and calibrate melt models. To do this, I melted my snow samples every evening at camp, and filtered it. The filters captured dust and black carbon in the snow. There are many ways to use samples like these. For instance, you can use them to calibrate albedo measurements made from orbit by passing satellites. Their accuracy depends on the ability to calibrate them with samples taken directly from the snow – they provide “ground truth”.
In the same way planetary probes take not only great pictures of celestial bodies but also many other measurements, an expedition can bring much more than pictures and a different way of looking at a place in time. It can also help our understanding of how the planet works.
For me, there is no higher way to serve than to support science, as I did for life sciences in the space program. After a long hiatus, I get another chance to contribute my own little grain of… dust and black carbon. Thank you Dr. Horodyskyj.