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This Earth Day, Explore the Ways NOAA Research is Tackling the Planet’s Biggest Questions

This Earth Day, Explore the Ways NOAA Research is Tackling the Planet’s Biggest Questions

By Katie Valentine

For many, Earth Day is about celebrating the planet we live on and finding ways to give back to it, whether it be cleaning up a local waterway, committing to use less plastic, or removing invasive species from a local park. For scientists at NOAA, however, Earth Day — and every other day of the year — is also about getting to the bottom of some of the most pressing questions about the planet we call home: how it works, how it’s changing, and how humans are affecting it. 

In celebration of this year’s Earth Day, we’ve pulled together some of the most impactful science that has come out of NOAA Research in the last year. We hope these highlights help you get a bit of a better understanding of the Earth, the amazing ways in which it works and the challenges it faces.

Oceans

Two studies this year tackled two of the ocean’s most pressing problems: warming and acidification. As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use, agriculture, deforestation and other activities are released into the atmosphere, they trap heat from the sun, causing the planet to warm. The ocean absorbs much of this heat; more than 90 percent of the Earth’s warming over the last 50 years has happened in the ocean. And the deep ocean is no exception — research published in February used autonomous Deep Argo floats to explore cold, near-bottom South Pacific waters, and found that this region of the ocean is warming three times faster than it was in the 1990s. Warming oceans lead to a host of problems, including sea level rise (thanks to water expanding as it warms), coral bleaching and infectious disease outbreaks, delays in fall sea ice growth, and the potential for stronger hurricanes. Warmer waters can also cause yields of many species of fish to go down, as shown by research published in March by former Sea Grant fellow Chris Free. 

A chart showing the steadily increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (in parts per million) observed at NOAA's Mauna Loa Observatory over the course of 60 years.
A chart showing the steadily increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (in parts per million) observed at NOAA's Mauna Loa Observatory over the course of 60 years.

That excess atmospheric carbon leads to another problem: when it’s absorbed by the oceans, it causes ocean water to acidify. A study from March led by NOAA researchers found that the ocean absorbed four times the carbon annually between 1994 and 2007 than it did between 1800 and 1994. Sometimes called the “osteoporosis of the sea,” ocean acidification threatens the ability of corals and shellfish to build their shells and skeletons, which poses a risk to marine health and the economic health of fisheries. Continued research and monitoring of the ocean’s warming trends and uptake of CO2 by NOAA and other scientists is critical for managing and addressing these challenges. 

Weather and Climate

Scientists from NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division and Scripps Institution of Oceanography have been monitoring atmospheric CO2 levels atop Mauna Loa, a volcano in Hawaii, since 1958, creating the longest-running record of atmospheric CO2 on Earth. The recorded levels have been steadily increasing since the first year of records, and last year, scientists at Mauna Loa recorded the fourth-highest annual growth in atmospheric COconcentration since record-keeping began. As carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere go up, so does the Earth’s temperature: 2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record, behind 2016, 2015, and 2017, according to NOAA’s State of the Climate report

This increase in average temperature can be dangerous, especially to populations that live in cities, which are already warmer than their surrounding areas due to the urban heat island effect. Last summer, citizen scientists mapped out the hottest places in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., as part of a project funded by NOAA to map urban heat islands. Knowing where these pockets of heat are most likely to occur can help city managers and communities better plan and prepare for hot weather. In addition to its impact on temperature, climate change is already having an impact on precipitation around the globe, and will continue to do so in the future, according to a 2018 NOAA study. Impacts like this are driving scientists to improve climate models, and they are doing so in part by using data on cloud formation collected by CIMMS, one of NOAA’s Cooperative Institutes. 

 Energy

Renewable energy, of course, doesn’t emit carbon dioxide the way fossil fuel energy does. But being able to predict how changing weather patterns will impact renewable energy industries like wind and solar is critical. Last year, scientists from NOAA partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy for a study that improved forecasts for wind energy. The research looked at how physical terrain — such as mountains, coastlines and canyons — and weather physics affect forecasts of wind speed and turbulence. The data collected and analyzed by the project, whose scope was unprecedented, will improve forecasts for the wind energy industry by 15-25 percent.

Air

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Scientists proved in 1987 that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) found in hundreds of products were causing the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol committed countries around the world to phasing out these chemicals, but NOAA research discovered last year that concentrations of CFC-11, a common CFC, are on the rise again. NOAA scientists also took a lead role in the “Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2018,” a report that comes out every four years and provides a comprehensive look at the health of the world’s ozone layer. Thankfully, despite CFC-11’s unexpected rise, the Montreal Protocol has been largely successful in phasing out ozone-harming CFCs, according to the report. And, as researchers continue to monitor CFC levels, their data helps to continuously track how effective treaties like the Montreal Protocol have been. 

NOAA researchers study another type of ozone as well — ground-level ozone, an air pollutant that can cause health problems and pose a risk to crop and ecosystem productivity. A February 2018 study co-authored by a CIRES scientist working at NOAA found that even though levels of ground-level ozone have been falling in much of North America and Europe, people in several states still experienced more than 15 days of elevated ozone levels a year between 2010 and 2014. Research has also focused on lesser-known pollutants — dust, for instance, is a growing concern for air quality managers, particularly in the Southwest, and is a research focus for scientists at NOAA's Air Resources Laboratory. And personal care products can also be a concern for air quality — a 2018 study found these products emit chemical vapors that can contribute significantly to urban air pollution.                                                              

Great Lakes

Quagga mussel collected from Lake Michigan, June 2007. Photo by M. Quigley, GLERL.
Quagga mussel collected from Lake Michigan, June 2007. Photo by M. Quigley, GLERL.

Though they can be valuable parts of their native ecosystems, once some species are introduced elsewhere, they can become invasive, taking resources from native species and spelling trouble for their new habitats. In the Great Lakes region, an ongoing NOAA research project is monitoring the unprecedented impacts invasive quagga mussels are having on the Lake Michigan food web and water clarity. Scientists are also studying silver carp, another invasive species, which has made its way up the Mississippi River and looks poised to enter the Great Lakes. Research published in March makes it easier to identify — and thus track — silver carp larvae. To keep tabs on these invasive species, along with many others, NOAA researchers are also collaborating with other agency partners through the Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS), a database that allows scientists, managers, and the public to track and learn more about aquatic invaders in the region.

The research NOAA scientists do may sometimes point to sobering problems facing our planet. But the more we know about these problems, the better equipped we are to manage and solve them. Check out the 2018 NOAA Science Report to learn more about the ways our science helps answer some of the Earth’s big environmental questions.

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