Thursday, April 9, 2009

Aerosols May Drive A Significant Portion Of Arctic Warming

Aerosols can influence climate directly by either reflecting or absorbing the sun's radiation as it moves through the atmosphere. The tiny airborne particles enter the atmosphere from sources such as industrial pollution, volcanoes and residential cooking stoves.

Though greenhouse gases are invariably at the center of discussions about global climate change, new NASA research suggests that much of the atmospheric warming observed in the Arctic since 1976 may be due to changes in tiny airborne particles called aerosols.

Emitted by natural and human sources, aerosols can directly influence climate by reflecting or absorbing the sun's radiation. The small particles also affect climate indirectly by seeding clouds and changing cloud properties, such as reflectivity.
A new study, led by climate scientist Drew Shindell of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, used a coupled ocean-atmosphere model to investigate how sensitive different regional climates are to changes in levels of carbon dioxide, ozone, and aerosols.
The researchers found that the mid and high latitudes are especially responsive to changes in the level of aerosols. Indeed, the model suggests aerosols likely account for 45 percent or more of the warming that has occurred in the Arctic during the last three decades. The results were published in the April issue of Nature Geoscience.
Though there are several varieties of aerosols, previous research has shown that two types -- sulfates and black carbon -- play an especially critical role in regulating climate change. Both are products of human activity.
Sulfates, which come primarily from the burning of coal and oil, scatter incoming solar radiation and have a net cooling effect on climate. Over the past three decades, the United States and European countries have passed a series of laws that have reduced sulfate emissions by 50 percent. While improving air quality and aiding public health, the result has been less atmospheric cooling from sulfates.
At the same time, black carbon emissions have steadily risen, largely because of increasing emissions from Asia. Black carbon -- small, soot-like particles produced by industrial processes and the combustion of diesel and biofuels -- absorb incoming solar radiation and have a strong warming influence on the atmosphere.
In the modeling experiment, Shindell and colleagues compiled detailed, quantitative information about the relative roles of various components of the climate system, such as solar variations, volcanic events, and changes in greenhouse gas levels. They then ran through various scenarios of how temperatures would change as the levels of ozone and aerosols -- including sulfates and black carbon -- varied in different regions of the world. Finally, they teased out the amount of warming that could be attributed to different climate variables. Aerosols loomed large.
The regions of Earth that showed the strongest responses to aerosols in the model are the same regions that have witnessed the greatest real-world temperature increases since 1976. The Arctic region has seen its surface air temperatures increase by 1.5 C (2.7 F) since the mid-1970s. In the Antarctic, where aerosols play less of a role, the surface air temperature has increased about 0.35 C (0.6 F).
That makes sense, Shindell explained, because of the Arctic's proximity to North America and Europe. The two highly industrialized regions have produced most of the world's aerosol emissions over the last century, and some of those aerosols drift northward and collect in the Arctic. Precipitation, which normally flushes aerosols out of the atmosphere, is minimal there, so the particles remain in the air longer and have a stronger impact than in other parts of the world.
Since decreasing amounts of sulfates and increasing amounts of black carbon both encourage warming, temperature increases can be especially rapid. The build-up of aerosols also triggers positive feedback cycles that further accelerate warming as snow and ice cover retreat.
In the Antarctic, in contrast, the impact of sulfates and black carbon is minimized because of the continent's isolation from major population centers and the emissions they produce.
"There's a tendency to think of aerosols as small players, but they're not," said Shindell. "Right now, in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere and in the Arctic, the impact of aerosols is just as strong as that of the greenhouse gases."
The growing recognition that aerosols may play a larger climate role can have implications for policymakers.
"We will have very little leverage over climate in the next couple of decades if we're just looking at carbon dioxide," Shindell said. "If we want to try to stop the Arctic summer sea ice from melting completely over the next few decades, we're much better off looking at aerosols and ozone."
Aerosols tend to be quite-short lived, residing in the atmosphere for just a few days or weeks. Greenhouses gases, by contrast, can persist for hundreds of years. Atmospheric chemists theorize that the climate system may be more responsive to changes in aerosol levels over the next few decades than to changes in greenhouse gas levels, which will have the more powerful effect in coming centuries.
"This is an important model study, raising lots of great questions that will need to be investigated with field research," said Loretta Mickley, an atmospheric chemist from Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. who was not directly involved in the research. Understanding how aerosols behave in the atmosphere is still very much a work-in-progress, she noted, and every model needs to be compared rigorously to real life observations. But the science behind Shindell's results should be taken seriously.
"It appears that aerosols have quite a powerful effect on climate, but there's still a lot more that we need to sort out," said Shindell.
NASA's upcoming Glory satellite is designed to enhance our current aerosol measurement capabilities to help scientists reduce uncertainties about aerosols by measuring the distribution and microphysical properties of the particles.
Adapted from materials provided by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Sound From Exploding Volcanoes Compared With Jet Engines

Scripps researchers installed an array of microbarometers at Mount St. Helens in November 2004 to collect infrasound near the site

New research on infrasound from volcanic eruptions shows an unexpected connection with jet engines. Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego speeded up the recorded sounds from two volcanoes and uncovered a noise very similar to typical jet engines.

These new research findings provide scientists with a more useful probe of the inner workings of volcanic eruptions. Infrasound is sound that is lower in frequency than 20 cycles per second, below the limit of human hearing.
The study led by Robin Matoza, a graduate student at Scripps Oceanography, will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Matoza measured infrasonic sound from Mount St. Helens in Washington State and Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador, both of which are highly active volcanoes close to large population centers.
"We hypothesized that these very large natural volcanic jets were making very low frequency jet noise," said Matoza, who conducts research in the Scripps Laboratory for Atmospheric Acoustics.
Using 100-meter aperture arrays of microbarometers, similar to weather barometers but sensitive to smaller changes in atmospheric pressure and low-frequency infrasonic microphones, the research team tested the hypothesis, revealing the physics of how the large-amplitude signals from eruptions are produced. Jet noise is generated by the turbulent flow of air out of a jet engine. Matoza and colleagues recorded these very large-amplitude infrasonic signals during the times when ash-laden gas was being ejected from the volcano. The study concluded that these large-scale volcanic jets are producing sound in a similar way to smaller-scale man-made jets.
"We can draw on this area of research to speed up our own study of volcanoes for both basic research interests, to provide a deeper understanding of eruptions, and for practical purposes, to determine which eruptions are likely ash-free and therefore less of a threat and which are loaded with ash," said Michael Hedlin, director of Scripps' Atmospheric Acoustics Lab and a co-author on the paper.
Large-amplitude infrasonic signals from volcanic eruptions are currently used in a prototype real-time warning system that informs the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) when large infrasonic signals have come from erupting volcanoes. Researchers hope this new information can improve hazard mitigation and inform pilots and the aviation industry.
"The more quantitative we can get about how the sound is produced the more information we can provide to the VAAC," said Matoza. "Eventually it could be possible to provide detailed information such as the size or flow rate of the volcanic jet to put into ash-dispersal forecasting models."
The paper's co-authors include D. Fee and M A. Garcés, Infrasound Laboratory at the University of Hawaii at Manoa; J.M. Seiner of the National Center for Physical Acoustics at the University of Mississippi; and P.A. Ramón of Instituto Geofisico, Escuela Politecnica Naional. The research study was funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
Adapted from materials provided by University of California - San Diego.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Physical Activity May Strengthen Children's Ability To Pay Attention

Charles Hillman and Darla Castelli, professors of kinesiology and community health, have found that physical activity may increase students' cognitive control -- or ability to pay attention -- and also result in better performance on academic achievement tests.

As school districts across the nation revamped curricula to meet requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act, opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day diminished significantly.

Future mandates, however, might be better served by taking into account findings from a University of Illinois study suggesting the academic benefits of physical education classes, recess periods and after-school exercise programs. The research, led by Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health and the director of the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at Illinois, suggests that physical activity may increase students’ cognitive control – or ability to pay attention – and also result in better performance on academic achievement tests.
“The goal of the study was to see if a single acute bout of moderate exercise – walking – was beneficial for cognitive function in a period of time afterward,” Hillman said. “This question has been asked before by our lab and others, in young adults and older adults, but it’s never been asked in children. That’s why it’s an important question.”
For each of three testing criteria, researchers noted a positive outcome linking physical activity, attention and academic achievement.
Study participants were 9-year-olds (eight girls, 12 boys) who performed a series of stimulus-discrimination tests known as flanker tasks, to assess their inhibitory control.
On one day, students were tested following a 20-minute resting period; on another day, after a 20-minute session walking on a treadmill. Students were shown congruent and incongruent stimuli on a screen and asked to push a button to respond to incongruencies. During the testing, students were outfitted with an electrode cap to measure electroencephalographic (EEG) activity.
“What we found is that following the acute bout of walking, children performed better on the flanker task,” Hillman said. “They had a higher rate of accuracy, especially when the task was more difficult. Along with that behavioral effect, we also found that there were changes in their event-related brain potentials (ERPs) – in these neuroelectric signals that are a covert measure of attentional resource allocation.”
One aspect of the neuroelectric activity of particular interest to researchers is a measure referred to as the P3 potential. Hillman said the amplitude of the potential relates to the allocation of attentional resources.
“What we found in this particular study is, following acute bouts of walking, children had a larger P3 amplitude, suggesting that they are better able to allocate attentional resources, and this effect is greater in the more difficult conditions of the flanker test, suggesting that when the environment is more noisy – visual noise in this case – kids are better able to gate out that noise and selectively attend to the correct stimulus and act upon it.”
In an effort to see how performance on such tests relates to actual classroom learning, researchers next administered an academic achievement test. The test measured performance in three areas: reading, spelling and math.
Again, the researchers noted better test results following exercise.
“And when we assessed it, the effect was largest in reading comprehension,” Hillman said. In fact, he said, “If you go by the guidelines set forth by the Wide Range Achievement Test, the increase in reading comprehension following exercise equated to approximately a full grade level.
“Thus, the exercise effect on achievement is not statistically significant, but a meaningful difference.”
Hillman said he’s not sure why the students’ performance on the spelling and math portions of the test didn’t show as much of an improvement as did reading comprehension, but suspects it may be related to design of the experiment. Students were tested on reading comprehension first, leading him to speculate that too much time may have elapsed between the physical activity and the testing period for those subjects.
“Future attempts will definitely look at the timing,” he said. Subsequent testing also will introduce other forms of physical-activity testing.
“Treadmills are great,” Hillman said. “But kids don’t walk on treadmills, so it’s not an externally valid form of exercise for most children. We currently have an ongoing project that is looking at treadmill walking at the same intensity relative to a Wii Fit game – which is a way in which kids really do exercise.”
Still, given the preliminary study’s positive outcomes on the flanker task, ERP data and academic testing, study co-author Darla Castelli believes these early findings could be used to inform useful curricular changes.
“Modifications are very easy to integrate,” Castelli said. For example, she recommends that schools make outside playground facilities accessible before and after school.
“If this is not feasible because of safety issues, then a school-wide assembly containing a brief bout of physical activity is a possible way to begin each day,” she said. “Some schools are using the Intranet or internal TV channels to broadcast physical activity sessions that can be completed in each classroom.”
Among Castelli’s other recommendations for school personnel interested in integrating physical activity into the curriculum:

  • scheduling outdoor recess as a part of each school day;
  • offering formal physical education 150 minutes per week at the elementary level, 225 minutes at the secondary level;
  • encouraging classroom teachers to integrate physical activity into learning.
An example of how physical movement could be introduced into an actual lesson would be “when reading poetry (about nature or the change of seasons), students could act like falling leaves,” she said.
The U. of I. study appears in the current issue of the journal Neuroscience. Along with Castelli and Hillman, co-authors are U. of I. psychology professor Art Kramer and kinesiology and community health graduate student Mathew Pontifex and undergraduate Lauren Raine.
Adapted from materials provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Rocket Launches May Need Regulation To Prevent Ozone Depletion, Says Study

A Delta rocket launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center carrying Mars Phoenix lander in 2007.

The global market for rocket launches may require more stringent regulation in order to prevent significant damage to Earth's stratospheric ozone layer in the decades to come, according to a new study by researchers in California and Colorado.

Future ozone losses from unregulated rocket launches will eventually exceed ozone losses due to chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which stimulated the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning ozone-depleting chemicals, said Martin Ross, chief study author from The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles. The study, which includes the University of Colorado at Boulder and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, provides a market analysis for estimating future ozone layer depletion based on the expected growth of the space industry and known impacts of rocket launches.
"As the rocket launch market grows, so will ozone-destroying rocket emissions," said Professor Darin Toohey of CU-Boulder's atmospheric and oceanic sciences department. "If left unregulated, rocket launches by the year 2050 could result in more ozone destruction than was ever realized by CFCs."
A paper on the subject by Ross and Manfred Peinemann of The Aerospace Corporation, CU-Boulder's Toohey and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Patrick Ross appeared online in March in the journal Astropolitics.
Since some proposed space efforts would require frequent launches of large rockets over extended periods, the new study was designed to bring attention to the issue in hopes of sparking additional research, said Ross. "In the policy world uncertainty often leads to unnecessary regulation," he said. "We are suggesting this could be avoided with a more robust understanding of how rockets affect the ozone layer."
Current global rocket launches deplete the ozone layer by no more than a few hundredths of 1 percent annually, said Toohey. But as the space industry grows and other ozone-depleting chemicals decline in the Earth's stratosphere, the issue of ozone depletion from rocket launches is expected to move to the forefront.
Today, just a handful of NASA space shuttle launches release more ozone-depleting substances in the stratosphere than the entire annual use of CFC-based medical inhalers used to treat asthma and other diseases in the United States and which are now banned, said Toohey. "The Montreal Protocol has left out the space industry, which could have been included."
Highly reactive trace-gas molecules known as radicals dominate stratospheric ozone destruction, and a single radical in the stratosphere can destroy up to 10,000 ozone molecules before being deactivated and removed from the stratosphere. Microscopic particles, including soot and aluminum oxide particles emitted by rocket engines, provide chemically active surface areas that increase the rate such radicals "leak" from their reservoirs and contribute to ozone destruction, said Toohey.
In addition, every type of rocket engine causes some ozone loss, and rocket combustion products are the only human sources of ozone-destroying compounds injected directly into the middle and upper stratosphere where the ozone layer resides, he said.
Although U.S. science agencies spent millions of dollars to assess the ozone loss potential from a hypothetical fleet of 500 supersonic aircraft -- a fleet that never materialized -- much less research has been done to understand the potential range of effects the existing global fleet of rockets might have on the ozone layer, said Ross.
Since 1987 CFCs have been banned from use in aerosol cans, freezer refrigerants and air conditioners. Many scientists expect the stratospheric ozone layer -- which absorbs more than 90 percent of harmful ultraviolet radiation that can harm humans and ecosystems -- to return to levels that existed prior to the use of ozone-depleting chemicals by the year 2040.
Rockets around the world use a variety of propellants, including solids, liquids and hybrids. Ross said while little is currently known about how they compare to each other with respect to the ozone loss they cause, new studies are needed to provide the parameters required to guide possible regulation of both commercial and government rocket launches in the future.
"Twenty years may seem like a long way off, but space system development often takes a decade or longer and involves large capital investments," said Ross. "We want to reduce the risk that unpredictable and more strict ozone regulations would be a hindrance to space access by measuring and modeling exactly how different rocket types affect the ozone layer."
The research team is optimistic that a solution to the problem exists. "We have the resources, we have the expertise, and we now have the regulatory history to address this issue in a very powerful way," said Toohey. "I am optimistic that we are going to solve this problem, but we are not going to solve it by doing nothing."
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and The Aerospace Corporation.
Adapted from materials provided by University of Colorado at Boulder.

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