GIS at UMass-Lowell: Alex Brown, instructor (2006-2015)

  (December 2015)

Alex Brown <

Instructor, GIS and Remote Sensing (2006-2015)
Department of Environmental, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences
University of Massachusetts Lowell

(617) 308-9456 mobile, SMS  -->

  • Last edited 1/12/2018:  Your suggestions and comments are welcome!  Please write to me at
"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow  and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased."    --

Hurricane forecasters look closely at ocean temperatures. Sea surface temperatures above 78 degrees Fahrenheit, shown here (2015) in yellow, 
orange and red, are sufficiently warm to fuel hurricanes. Credit: NOAA; thanks to
    • "Monitoring the past and current climate helps us better understand climate change and enables future climate projections. We must maintain and extend the existing global climate observing systems [Riser et al., 2016; von Schuckmann et al., 2016] as well as develop improved coupled (ocean-atmosphere) climate assessment and prediction tools to ensure reliable and continuous monitoring for Earth’s energy imbalance, ocean heat content, and sea level rise."
    • "Observations show that climate change likely increased Hurricane Harvey's total rainfall by at least 19%.  Climate change likely increased the chances of the observed rainfall by a factor of at least 3.5."  [ Risser et al ]
  •  Walsh et al. "Pathways for balancing CO2 emissions and sinks"
    • "We find that, barring unforeseen and transformative technological advancement, anthropogenic emissions need to peak within the next 10 years, to maintain realistic pathways to meeting the COP21 emissions and warming targets. Fossil fuel consumption will probably need to be reduced below a quarter of primary energy supply by 2100 and the allowable consumption rate drops even further if negative emissions technologies remain technologically or economically unfeasible at the global scale."

"Global glacier volume is shrinking. This loss of Earth's land ice is of international concern. Rising seas, to which melting ice is a key contributor, are expected to displace millions of people within the lifetime of many of today's children. But the problems of glacier loss do not stop at sea level rise; glaciers are also crucial water sources, integral parts of Earth's air and water circulation systems, nutrient and shelter suppliers for flora and fauna, and unique landscapes for contemplation or exploration.  ...  The evidence is overwhelming: Earth is losing its ice.  Much of this loss is irreversible and the result of human-caused climate change.  Unless substantial climate response action is taken and the trend of global temperature rise is reversed, we will continue to see Miami streets swallowed by the sea and glacier freshwater reservoirs melt into mud.  And we can expect this pattern to continue for decades, centuries, and, indeed, millenia. ..."

Saying goodbye to glaciers - Twila Moon, National Snow and Ice Data Center.  

"We are playing a global endgame. Humanity's grasp on the planet is not strong; it is growing weaker. Freshwater is growing short; the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on the land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish, and fungi. For many species, these changes are already fatal."

Researchers seek to understand why right whales are showing up in high-risk waters in Canada
Science 25 August 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6353, pp. 740-741
by Erik Stokstad -- "The highly endangered North Atlantic right whale is having its worst year in decades.  At least 13 of the whales -- out of a population of 450 -- have died this year, most of them in the past 2.5 months in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Canada's eastern coast.  That is "an unprecedented number of deaths" says whale biologist Moira Brown of the New England Aquarium in Boston.  If the deaths continue, she says, "the population can't withstand this." ... This isn't the first crisis to hit the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalena glacialis), which lives along the eastern coast of North America.  Whalers nearly hunted it to extinction by the early 20th century.  Even after gaining international legal protection in 1949, the whales -- which rest and usually feed near the surface -- often drowned in fishing gear or died from ship strikes.  By the early 1990s, researchers estimated that fewer than 300 remained.  Since then, the population has increased.  ... The whales also benefited in the early 2000s when a favorite prey, the oily copepod Calanus finmarchius, burgeoned in the whales' summering grounds in the Gulf of Maine, the Bay of Fundy, and the Scotian Shelf.  Females bulk up on these miniscule crustaceans,  before migrating to the waters of the southern United States to give birth.  ... "

See also:  NY Times 4/27/17 Mass Die-Off of Whales in Atlantic Is Being Investigated and 10/3/17 A Less Hospitable Home:  As seas warm, whales face new dangers ; also see the Greenpeace seismic airgun blasting opposition campaign recommending a NO vote against H.R. 3133, the Streamlining Environmental Approvals (SEA) Act, to stop seismic airgun blasting.  (

The Great Nutrient Collapse:  The atmosphere is literally changing the food we eat, for the worse.

By Helena Bottemiller Evich



“Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Irakli Loladze said.*  “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.” His research on mathematical modeling of plant growth has led him to study recent change in nutrient value of crops. How does rising atmospheric CO2 change how plants grow? How much of the observed long-term nutrient drop of crops since the sharp change in CO2 levels is caused by the atmosphere, and how much by other factors, like breeding? It’s difficult, but not impossible, to run farm-scale experiments on how CO2 affects plants. Researchers use a technique that essentially turns an entire field into a lab. The current gold standard for this type of research is called a FACE experiment (for “free-air carbon dioxide enrichment”), in which researchers create large open-air structures that blow CO2 onto the plants in a given area. Small sensors keep track of the CO2 levels; when too much CO2 escapes the perimeter, the contraption puffs more into the air to keep the levels stable. Scientists can then compare those plants directly to others growing in normal air nearby. These experiments and others like them have shown scientists that plants change in important ways when they’re grown at elevated CO2 levels. Within the category of plants known as “C3”** ― which includes approximately 95 percent of plant species on earth, including ones we eat like wheat, rice, barley and potatoes ― elevated CO2 has been shown to drive down important minerals like calcium, potassium, zinc and iron. The data we have, which look at how plants would respond to the kind of CO2 concentrations we may see in our lifetimes, show these important minerals drop by 8 percent, on average. The same conditions have been shown to also drive down the protein content of C3 crops, in some cases significantly, with wheat and rice dropping 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively. ... "   I. Loladze, "Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition" eLife. 2014; 3: e02245; doi:  10.7554/eLife.02245

12th United States Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013,  following his 2016 Tripathy Memorial Lecture “Climate Change and a Path to Clean Energy”
November 16 2016 - Past US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, delivered UMass Lowell’s annual Tripathy Memorial Lecture. -- Dr Chu laid out alarming trends in carbon emissions, sea-level rise and global temperatures, noting that although the consequences of these phenomena may not be felt for generations, they will nonetheless be dire. There is compelling evidence that Earth’s climate is changing and humans are responsible for it. We only have one chance at correcting it and we have to do it, he said.  Dr Chu's Tripathy Lecture, his presentation on his work as US Energy Secretary, is available on UML's web:; see also,…/press-relea…/2016/StevenChu111616.aspx).

The University of Massachusetts is the first major public university to divest from fossil fuel and energy investments.  I'm proud to have been a part of this, through UML's Climate Change Initiative.


Much of my recent work has been in education, where the power of electronic communications has given us the Internet, and taught us the necessity of working together on problems which seem beyond our individual powers to solve. 

For most of my forty (!) odd years as an engineer -- a designer, creator and maintainer of useful things, using physical science training and experience -- I've been a member of an unusual large professional organization, the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). This field of engineering has touched and transformed almost every aspect of modern society, from power generation and distribution, for home, commercial and industrial illumination, to transportation and communication, and especially education of young people around the world. IEEE's member communities and professional societies have been a great resource to my own continuing education, especially:

  • IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society (IEEE-GRSS)
  • IEEE Committee on Earth Observation (ICEO)
  • IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (IEEE-OES)
  • IEEE Communications Society (IEEE-COMSOC)
IEEE's deepest roots are in the electric power generation and transmission industry, which has its own strong needs for static computer-based mapping, or "Geographic Information Systems (GIS)", the subject matter I taught at UML for almost a decade.   A recent "Atlas of Electricity" by ESRI, the most prominent vendor of GIS software, whose products I've taught for that decade to largely non-technical environmental engineers, combines static maps with moving-image elements using ArcGIS Online, a new GIS web service product family from ESRI which emphasizes integration of spatial data with interactive web map graphics technologies which tell stories of change visually:

An Atlas of Electricity -- a Story Map by ESRI   (2015)

"Electricity is integral to the modern American lifestyle. But the generation and transmission of electricity is a complex, opaque process. Here's how it all works."


["The Story Map Cascade℠ app template lets you combine narrative text with maps, images, and multimedia content in an engaging, full-screen scrolling experience. In a Cascade story, sections containing text and in-line media can be interspersed with "immersive" sections that fill the screen with your maps, 3D scenes, images, and videos. Cascade is ideal for making compelling, in-depth stories that are very easy for people to navigate:  Learn more here:"]

                  "More than 60 percent of the freshwater on Earth 
                                                is locked in Antarctica’s ice sheets." ...

A different collection of web spatial visualization and mapping technologies, including "virtual reality" video, presenting evidence of rapid change.  First published 5/18/2017 -- NYT reporting expedition story here.

"We went to Antarctica to understand how changes to its vast ice sheet might affect the world.   Flowing lines on these maps show how the ice is moving. ... Ice sheets flow downhill, seemingly in slow motion. Mountains funnel the ice into glaciers. And ice flowing from the land into the sea can form a floating ice shelf.  Glaciers in certain areas have been undercut by warmer ocean waters, and the flow of ice is getting faster and faster. The acceleration is making some scientists fear that Antarctica’s ice sheet may have entered the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration. Because the collapse of vulnerable parts of the ice sheet could raise the sea level dramatically,  the continued existence of the world’s great coastal cities — Miami, New York, Shanghai and many more — is tied to Antarctica’s fate..."

"A rapid disintegration of Antarctica might, in the worst case, cause the sea to rise so fast that tens of millions of coastal refugees would have to flee inland, potentially straining societies to the breaking point. Climate scientists used to regard that scenario as fit only for Hollywood disaster scripts. But these days, they cannot rule it out with any great confidence.  Yet as they try to determine how serious the situation is, the scientists confront a frustrating lack of information.  Recent computer forecasts suggest that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high level, parts of Antarctica could break up rapidly, causing the ocean to rise six feet or more by the end of this century. That is double the maximum increase that an international climate panel projected only four years ago. ..."

     Antarctic Dispatches  Part 1Part 2Part 3

"... In a study last year, Robert M. DeConto of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (web), and David Pollard of Pennsylvania State University used their computer model to predict what would happen if emissions were reduced sharply over the next few decades, in line with international climate goals. Under the most ambitious scenarios, they found a strong likelihood that Antarctica would remain fairly stable. “There’s still a chance that all hell will break loose,” Dr. DeConto said. “But the model is suggesting there’s a way to reduce the risk of a big sea-level rise from Antarctica.” [3]

[ ;]

The Antarctica Series:  Virtual reality experience
"Experience what it’s like above and below the Antarctic ice in virtual reality or read the story behind our reporting trip.  Four virtual-reality films take you on, above and below the Antarctic ice. Download the NYT VR app to your phone or pad for a fully immersive experience:
1. UNDER A CRACKED SKY (NYTVR 100000005099196) 
2. THREE SIX JULIET (NYTVR 100000005099197) 
3. MCMURDO STATION (NYTVR 100000005107713)
4. A SHIFTING CONTINENT (NYTVR 100000005109282)

Ice-Diving Drones Embark on Risky Antarctic Mission
To forecast sea level rise, a flotilla of robot subs must map the unseen bottom of a melting ice shelf—if they are not sunk by it
Mark Harris - Scientific American, December 6, 2017

"Deep below the bright, weather-smoothed surface of Antarctica’s ice shelves there is a dark landscape unlike any other on Earth. Fed by ice sheets on land, these giant shelves float on the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean. In their undersides melting water has carved out great inverted canyons and caves reaching up hundreds of meters, with terraces and ledges that step upward into the gloom. Sharp crevasses have been created where tidal pulls cracked the ice. And where the shelf is thickest above, ridges of ice below reach down and snag on the seabed, causing further stresses and cracks. ..."

"Welcome to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free region in Antarctica and one of the driest places on the planet. Most of the continent is covered in thick ice, but this place is a striking exception. Sheltering mountains and dry winds from the continent preserve a frigid desert that defies all expectations.

"It is not barren: Scientists have spent decades studying the extreme environment and the microscopic life that survives there. The Dry Valleys may well be our closest equivalent to a Martian landscape. ..."

"NYTimes' Antarctic Dispatches is a three-part series from the seventh continent. Written by Justin Gillis. Maps and graphics by Derek Watkins and Jeremy White. Photographs by Jonathan Corum. Video by Evan Grothjan and Graham Roberts. Additional production by Gregor Aisch, Larry Buchanan and Rumsey Taylor. 

Antarctic Dispatches  Part 1Part 2Part 3
Evan Grothjan, left, Jonathan Corum, Justin Gillis and Graham Roberts. CreditPhoto: Elaine Hood/U.S. Antarctic Program

"Interested in climate change? Sign up to receive our in-depth journalism about climate change around the world -- see"

Images (NYT 7/13/17):  Larsen C ice shelf rift from space; (left) approx 65x65 mi. (right) approx 1600x1600 feet.  Edge of ice cliff is 

"The collapse of the peninsula’s ice shelves can be interpreted as fulfilling a prophecy made in 1978 by a renowned geologist named John H. Mercer of Ohio State University. In a classic paper [5] Dr. Mercer warned that the western part of Antarctica was so vulnerable to human-induced climate warming as to pose a “threat of disaster” from rising seas.

"He said that humanity would know the calamity had begun when ice shelves started breaking up along the peninsula, with the breakups moving progressively southward.

"The Larsen A ice shelf broke up over several years starting in 1995; the Larsen B underwent a dramatic collapse in 2002; and now, scientists fear, the calving of the giant iceberg could be the first stage in the breakup of Larsen C.

“As climate warming progresses farther south,” Dr. Mercer said, “it will affect larger and larger ice shelves, holding back bigger and bigger glaciers, so that their collapse will contribute more to sea-level rise.”


For more Times reporting on Antarctica, read the Antarctic Dispatches or watch four virtual-reality films in The Antarctica Series:   

Antarctic Dispatches 
 Part 1Part 2Part 3

1. UNDER A CRACKED SKY (NYTVR 100000005099196) 

2. THREE SIX JULIET (NYTVR 100000005099197) 

3. MCMURDO STATION (NYTVR 100000005107713)

4. A SHIFTING CONTINENT (NYTVR 100000005109282)


  1. Janos Pasztor
  2. Cynthia Scharf
  3. Kai-Uwe Schmidt
Science  21 Jul 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6348, pp. 231
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan6794

"The Paris Agreement aims to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5° to 2°C above preindustrial temperature, but achieving this goal requires much higher levels of mitigation than currently planned. This challenge has focused greater attention on climate geoengineering approaches, which intentionally alter Earth’s climate system, as part of an overall response starting with radical mitigation. Yet it remains unclear how to govern research on, and potential deployment of geoengineering technologies. ..." [6]

[6]  ; Big Bad Fix: The Case Against Geoengineering (PDF)      ; ;  ;   ;  ;   ;  ; ;

  • Last edited 1/12/2018:  Your comments and suggestions are welcome!  Please write to me at