News


VIPER Alumnus Andrew Thorpe Investigates Mysterious Methane Hotspot

posted Jun 3, 2015, 4:11 PM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Jun 3, 2015, 4:14 PM ]

A team of scientists scrambles to better understand a gigantic cloud of methane looming over the Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest. This single cloud is believed to comprise nearly 10 percent of all methane emissions derived from natural gas in the United States. But its origins remain a mystery. The following article on the subject from pbs.org was written by Laura Santhanam and posted June 3, 2015 with the title “Why Is There a Huge Methane Hotspot in the American Southwest?” 

The Four Corners region of the southwest United States is a magnificent, otherworldly place, marked by red rock vistas, ancient cliff dwellings and sweeping blue sky. The names alone paint a picture of the landscape: The Painted Desert. The Petrified Forest. Monument Valley. But billowing above the rust-colored earth is the country’s largest concentration of methane, according to satellite data. That’s because this spot where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet is also home to one of the nation’s most productive natural gas fields and coalbed methane basins. About 10 percent of the country’s estimated methane emissions from natural gas is found in this region, according to recent scientific research and the Environmental Protection Agency.Methane is odorless, colorless and invisible to the naked eye. Following carbon dioxide, methane ranks as the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted by human activity in the United States. But in the short term, atmospheric methane is more than 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide at holding the sun’s heat, according to Colm Sweeney, the lead scientist for the NOAA Earth System Research Lab Aircraft Program. “It’s a very strong greenhouse gas and traps heat really effectively,” he said. “It’s like putting an inch of insulation in your attic versus putting 100 inches of insulation in your attic with the same amount of CO2.”


Andrew Thorpe of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory powers up a thermal camera imaging system next to a storage tank believed to be leaking methane at a natural gas facility near Aztec, New Mexico. 
Photo by Shaun Stanley

Scientists first realized methane was flooding the Four Corners after a satellite in 2003 detected higher-than normal amounts of the gas. A year earlier, the European Space Agency had launched Envisat, an eight-ton, sun-powered satellite the size of a school bus. While orbiting the planet, its mission was to track ocean temperature and ozone depletion, improving environmental studies. Onboard was SCIAMACHY, an image spectrometer that monitored gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, including methane, and created novel data maps. For years, the satellite captured images of sunlight reflecting off the Earth’s surface. Absorptions of methane in the data revealed its distribution around the globe.

But one day in April 2012, for reasons still unclear, ESA ground control crews lost all contact with Envisat and its instruments. The satellite had disappeared, but the data remained. In that data, Christian Frankenberg, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, found what he initially thought might be an error. A startling red spot of methane hovered over the U.S. Southwest, burning brighter, he said, than any other hotspot in the United States.

Atmospheric scientist Eric Kort of the University of Michigan plumbed the data further, using satellite images produced between 2003 and 2009. The team collected air samples, conducted on-the-ground observations, performed simulations and analyzed readings before concluding that the methane floating above the Four Corners represented the country’s largest concentration of the gas. In findings they published in October in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the scientists also suggested that the EPA was underestimating methane emissions nationwide, including in the Four Corners. Still, they puzzled over the source of the hotspot.

The Four Corners is part of the San Juan Basin, a region that covers 7,500 square miles and is “the most productive coalbed methane basin in North America,” according to the EPA. For years, oil and gas companies have tapped into this massive energy stash in the middle of the desert. About 60,000 wells are scattered across the area.

But scientists don’t understand how such massive amounts of methane are getting released into the air. Is it coming from natural sources, like the exposed coal seam jutting above the earth’s surface in parts of the San Juan Basin? Is it coming from open mine shafts or leaking equipment that belongs oil and gas companies? Is it a combination of these factors, or none of these factors? “The interesting part of the Four Corners is that there’s a lot of stuff coming out of these coal beds. I’m not going to say natural because we’re not sure how much that is going into production is influencing how much seepage is coming up,” Sweeney said.

Methane is generally harmless, but it can be problematic when it exists in extremely dense quantities or confined areas. Under sustained conditions for a long period of time, studies have found that people may have trouble breathing or even lose consciousness. In cramped spaces like a coal mine, methane is dangerous and can ignite easily. That’s where the term “canary in a coal mine” came from. If a caged canary in a mineshaft stopped singing and died, that signaled that there was too little oxygen and too much methane, carbon monoxide and other gases, and miners needed to get out, stat. That’s also why coal mines typically pump fresh airinto the shaft and use ventilation systems to dilute the gas.

Often when industrial sources emit methane, they also release volatile organic compounds into the air, said Mary Uhl, an environmental protection specialist with the federal Bureau of Land Management. These compounds trigger chemical reactions thatcreate ozone, which can harm people with asthma or respiratory conditions. Ozone levels in the Four Corners hover at 0.071 parts per million, which means they just barely meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s national air quality standards of 0.075 parts per million. And if federal standards drop to 0.065 to 0.070 parts per million, as proposed, the Four Corners would no longer meet the legal rate.

That’s a problem normally seen in urban areas with far more people and cars than what you would find in the Four Corners, Uhl said. “Rural areas of the country haven’t typically bumped up against the federal air quality standard for ozone,” she said. A reduction in methane emissions would likely reduce volatile organic compounds along with ozone levels, Uhl said.

In April, a team of scientists traveled to the Four Corners to study methane in this region. They flew five aircraft with equipment designed to detect the gas and drove two research vehicles roughly 3,000 miles — the distance between Los Angeles and Portland, Maine. Ultimately, they collected hundreds of air samples of methane that will be analyzed for 55 different trace gases and two methane isotopes. Now the scientists are sifting through terabytes of data, searching for answers. Air samples must be analyzed, and maps studied further to identify the origins of the gas. “This is where the detective work comes in, and where the fun of it comes in,” Sweeney with NOAA said. It will take months, but Frankenberg said he hopes that the team can produce findings by the end of the year. “It’s really rare that we get to observe an anomaly like this, but at the same time have measurements on the ground that confirm it,” he said.

Meanwhile, people who live in the Four Corners have mobilized to address the issue. Residents in the region have long reported respiratory problems. High ozone days when ground-level ozone blankets parts of the region are not uncommon, and lead to frequent emergency room visits. Community and government leaders have formed the Four Corners Air Quality Group, which meets periodically to figure out how to mitigate the effects of methane and the ozone that its presence aggravates.

San Juan County, which is in the affected area, got a C grade for ozone-related air quality, according to the American Lung Association’s 2015 State of the Air report. But the link between ozone and respiratory problems extends beyond the Four Corners region. Studies have shown that visits to the emergency room for asthma are more frequent on high-ozone days, according to the EPA. Those with asthma may be more sensitive to ozone, this online report states, and “the injury, inflammation, and increased airway reactivity induced by ozone exposure may result in a worsening of a person’s underlying asthma status, increasing the probability of an asthma exacerbation or a requirement for more treatment.”

About 200 people attended a public forum in San Juan County’s city of Farmington in April. Participants included members of the oil and gas industry, the local scientific community, nearby tribal communities and the general public. Julia Madrid, 31, a baker in Durango, Colorado, was among them. She suffers from lupus and said she has wondered if the region’s air has aggravated her illness. Her mother alerted her to a map of the region’s methane hotspot in the local newspaper. Madrid’s father mined coal, and her brother drilled for oil and gas. “If you look at the map, it’s a trip. Just out of nowhere, there’s this giant red spot,” Madrid said. “The data show such high levels of methane. Is that naturally occurring, or is it something we’re doing to the environment?”

Frankenberg still speaks with nostalgia about the lost satellite and the promise it held. A Japanese satellite tracks methane from space, but doesn’t produce the same type of images like the old satellite did. Meanwhile, Europe is scheduled to launch a new satellite instrument in 2016 that will measure methane, ozone, and other gases in the atmosphere with more precision. He hopes the new data will pick up where SCIAMACHY left off. “With satellites, you have global coverage,” Kort said. “There’s a real power in that. You can look in places you didn’t know you needed to look.”

Viper's Win Annual Geography Dept Awards

posted Jun 1, 2015, 9:29 AM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Jun 1, 2015, 9:32 AM ]

During the last colloquium of the year on May 28, the Geography Department gives 5 major awards to graduate students. This year, the VIPER lab had two outstanding recipients. Congratulations Mike and Andrew!

Andrew Thorpe
was the recipient of the Excellence in Research. The Department of Geography Excellence in Research award goes to a graduate student who has an outstanding research track record, in terms of both quality and quantity. The award is made annually to a graduate student who has a record of outstanding national and international conference presentations, publications, and/or lab or field studies. This year’s award includes a $500 prize.


Mike Alonzo
was the recipient of the The Jack Estes Memorial Award. The Jack Estes Memorial Award was established in memory of Jack Estes, Professor of Geography at UCSB from 1969 until 2001. Jack was Director of the Geography Remote Sensing Unit. His primary research interests involved the use of remote sensing and geographic information systems technology for analysis of earth resources. He conducted or supervised research for NASA on land-use change, crop identification, and advanced soil moisture conditions; for the U.S. Forest Service on fire fuels monitoring and modeling; and for the Environmental Protection Agency on pollution detection and modeling, and resources management. The award is given for outstanding research achievement working in the area of remote sensing. This year’s award includes a $1,000 prize.

Susan Meerdink Awarded NASA NESSF Award

posted May 21, 2015, 5:22 PM by akthorpe   [ updated May 21, 2015, 5:24 PM ]


Susan Meerdink was awarded a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) for her proposal, "Discriminating California Plant Species and Evaluating Temperature Relations across Seasons within Drought Impacted Ecosystems." This is a competitive, multi-year award, so congratulations to Susan for her accepted proposal!   

Congratulations Andrew!!

posted May 7, 2015, 7:13 AM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated May 7, 2015, 7:13 AM ]

Yesterday Andrew Thorpe defended his dissertation titled: Mapping and quantifying methane emissions from local sources using airborne imaging spectrometers. Afterwards the VIPER lab and family joined Andrew at the Beachside for lunch to celebrate his successful dissertation defense. It was a fun time with good food and friends! Congratulations Andrew! 




Sarah Shivers Awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

posted Apr 10, 2015, 1:39 PM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Apr 10, 2015, 1:39 PM ]

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced this year's recipients of Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF), and VIPER lab and UCSB Geography graduate student Sarah Shivers garnered one of them. The fellowship provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period ($34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution) for graduate study that leads to a research-based master's or doctoral degree in science or engineering.

Sarah Shivers: My proposal was entitled "Assessing the Capability of Hyperspectral Remote Sensing to Aid in Crop Water Management". My goal is to use remote sensing to better understand patterns of agricultural water use in California, the impacts of the drought, and the ways in which we can optimize use.

According to the NSF web site: “NSF awarded the GRF to 2,000 individuals from among 16,500 applicants in 2015. Awardees represent a diverse group of scientific disciplines and come from all states, as well as the District of Columbia, and commonwealths and territories of the United States. They are also a diverse group of individuals. Among the 2,000 awardees, 1,053 are women, 494 are from underrepresented minority groups, 43 are persons with disabilities, and 31 are veterans. The 2015 class of Graduate Fellows comes from 456 baccalaureate institutions, 72 more than in 2010, when GRFP began awarding 2,000 fellowships each year.

Since 1952, NSF has provided fellowships to individuals selected early in their graduate careers based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is a critical program in NSF's overall strategy to develop the globally-engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation.

A high priority for NSF and GRFP is increasing the diversity of the science and engineering workforce, including geographic distribution and the participation of women, underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities, and veterans. With its emphasis on support of individuals, GRFP offers fellowship awards directly to graduate students selected through a national competition.”

Link to Article: http://www.geog.ucsb.edu/events/department-news/1621/michelle-oyewole-and-sarah-shivers-awarded-nsf-graduate-research-fellowships/

Eating our ABC's

posted Mar 3, 2015, 10:22 AM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Mar 3, 2015, 10:23 AM ]

Throughout the month of February, the UCSB VIPER lab personnel ate food that started with a different letter of the alphabet every day. Inspired by Dar Roberts' shenanigans from earlier years, Seth Peterson and Sara Baguskas rallied the VIPER lab and set the ground rules. February 1st started off strong with foods starting with the letter A, such as alphabet pasta with arrabbiata sauce, apple cake, and acorn squash.

Throughout the month there were very unique dishes, as well as creative dish descriptions. For example, Seth and Sara rocked it on R day with red curry paste, red meat, rainbow chard, rainbow kale, red potatoes, and radish greens on rice noodles, rogue ales brutal bitter, and rosemary tea. Seth noted, “As the proud purveyor of a ‘Mormon pantry’ garden plot and a ridiculous cookbook collection (helpful for G, Y, Z), the alliterations involved on some days were fun. That said, savory oats with oregano, olive juice, olives, olive oil I wouldn’t do again. Honey with japanese horseradish (wasabi) was a good discovery, a super tasty dipping sauce.”

Others also experimented throughout the month. Sarah Shivers had the most unique ingredients for E day: eel with egg, edamame, and Expo 58 beer. “I made dishes that I had not even heard of before, but now are going to be common dishes in my house,” said Susan MeerdinkErin Wetherley agrees and adds, “I learned to make quiche! I am now a quiche person forever, and it’s all thanks to the alphabet!” Dar Roberts and family went all out day after day. For example, on one of the hardest days (V day) they had veggie burgers with Velveeta cheese, vinaigrette dressing on salad, V8, and vanilla toffee bar crunch ice cream. Another shining example was on H day with homemade Hollister Ranch hamburgers, home fries with hot sauce, honeydew melon, and hemp beer/ hard cider.

“Eating the alphabet was actually quite fun and introduced us to many new and interesting foods, such as Dragon Noodles and Xiao Sun Zi Chao Rou Mo on X day, ” said Dar. Food wasn’t the only thing subjected to Alphabet Month, as one member of the VIPER lab had a fantastic M day featuring not only M foods but an M flight with a Margarita, Moscow Mule, Mojito, Mint Julep, and Manhattan.

All in all, the entire lab had a fun time, though all are glad to see the letter Z and the end of February (and many plan for March to be “Diet Month”). Dar says, “I know my family will be glad to be free of the “tyranny of the alphabet”, starting February 27th.” Seth agrees, “One thing I won’t miss is the need to cook every night; some/many times it’s nice to eat leftovers.” Sarah adds, “Some letters are much more difficult than others. We all seemed to enjoy H and P days where the majority ate hamburgers and pizza, but U and N days were not quite as fun. Not all letters are created equal!”

Will we do it next year? Might be too early to say, but there are definitely ideas floating around right now - such as Dar’s suggestion, “Let’s do something geographic in 2016!” To commemorate their success and awesome food adventures, the VIPER lab celebrated in style with a party at the end of February. The only rule - bring whatever letter you want for food!

It's on the Geography Department too: http://www.geog.ucsb.edu/events/department-news/#post1599


VIPERs Star at the AGU Fall Meeting

posted Jan 16, 2015, 4:40 PM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Jan 16, 2015, 4:40 PM ]

VIPERs Mike Alonzo and Susan Meerdink received Outstanding Student Paper Awards (OSPA) at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting which was held in San Francisco, 15-19 December, 2014. Typically, only the top 3-5% of presenters in each section/focus group are awarded an OSPA. With nearly 24,000 attendees and more than 1,700 sessions, the AGU Fall Meeting is the largest and most prestigious earth and space science meeting in the world.

Over 15,000 posters were presented (all categories), including 3,200 by students this year. Considering that only about 130 OSPAs were given, the fact that UCSB Geography students garnered 3 of them is impressive. Mike and Susan scored gold in the Biogeoscience sector.

Mike’s poster was titled "Mapping Urban Forest Leaf Area Index Using Airborne Lidar" (co-authored by Bodo Bookhagen, Joe McFadden, Alex Sun, and Dar Roberts). “Many urban forest ecosystem services (e.g., air pollution reduction, stormwater runoff dampening, and delay) are governed by canopy leaf area. In this research, we attempted to quantify leaf area in a complex urban environment at fine spatial resolution using airborne lidar. The product of this effort is a citywide map of leaf area that can be used to create spatially explicit estimates of ecosystem structure and function.”

Susan’s oral presentation was titled “Linking Seasonal Foliar Chemistry to VSWIR-TIR Spectroscopy Across California Ecosystems” in Biogeosciences. Her coauthors were Dar Roberts, Jennifer King, Keely Roth, Cibele Amaral, and Simon Hook. “In this research we evaluate the potential of using the Visible Near Infrared/ Short Wave Infrared (VSWIR) and Thermal Infrared (TIR) to identify seasonal plant species foliar traits. The results of this research demonstrate the potential for the proposed NASA Hyperspectral Thermal Imager (HyspIRI) satellite mission to have increased accuracies for prediction of plant traits across all seasons and California ecosystems.”

Excerpt taken from: http://www.geog.ucsb.edu/events/department-news/#post1569

Strong Viper presence at HyspIRI Science Workshop

posted Oct 15, 2014, 11:58 AM by akthorpe   [ updated Oct 15, 2014, 12:05 PM ]

Six members of the Viper Lab attended the 2014 HyspIRI Science Workshop at Caltech. This workshop provided an update on mission status and ongoing science results for the proposed HyspIRI satellite mission. A number of presentations were given by the lab, including posters and talks. Advisor Dar Roberts also attended along with a number of Viper alumni.


IDEAS station threatened by Tank Fire

posted Sep 2, 2014, 1:03 PM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Sep 2, 2014, 1:06 PM ]

On June 26 a fire broke out on the Coal Oil Point Reserve coming within a few meters of the Innovative Datasets for Environmental Analysis by Students (IDEAS) station. The fire, dubbed the Tank Fire, burned approximately 20 acres of vegetation of the 158 acre reserve. While no structures or buildings were damage, some research plots were burned and others threatened. One of the threatened was the IDEAS station, which is maintained by Dar Roberts and hosted by the UCSB Geography Department. Established in 2007, the station contains equipment to measure radiation, wind, precipitation, leaf wetness, temperature, relative humidity, soil moisture and temperature. This equipment measured the close proximity of the fire and can be seen with a large drop in the relative humidity with a peak in temperature. Fortunately no equipment was harmed during the fire and this provides a unique opportunity for future classes.

More information about the IDEAS station can be found at www.geog.ucsb.edu/IDEAS



Dar Roberts Sends Last Letter as Chair

posted Jul 7, 2014, 2:08 PM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Jul 7, 2014, 2:09 PM ]

Time ticks away, and I am staring out my window. In 59 hours, 49 minutes, and 50 seconds, I will be passing the baton on to Dan Montello – but who’s counting? I can say with confidence that the past five years (minus two months) has without question been a period of greater change in the Department than any one before it. When Oliver Chadwick passed the baton on to me, the country was in a state of crisis – embroiled in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. This impacted us all – many staff had to be let go, departmental budgets were cut brutally, and class enrollments climbed while TA support declined. A recent faculty search for a new human geographer was canceled, and faculty and staff took a pay cut, otherwise described as a furlough.

As the ancient Greek dramatist, Menander (341/342 to 290 BCE) once stated, “Time heals all wounds” (or more precisely, “Time is the healer of all necessary evils”), and five years down the line, the Department is, in my opinion, as healthy as it has ever been. My tenure as Chair could be best characterized as a period of immense change. During my tenure, the department experienced a record number of retirements, including Terry Smith (2010), Mike Goodchild (2012), Catherine Gautier(2013), and Joel Michaelsen (2014, unless the Chancellor convinces Joel otherwise). We have also experienced numerous losses due to separation, starting with Martin Raubal (2011),Chris Still (2012), and most recently (and sadly), Bodo Bookhagen (2014).

However, we have also kept some of our best and gained some new colleagues, starting with the return of Phaedon Kyriakidis in 2011, immediately benefitting a new generation of graduate students with his excellence of instruction in geostatistics. Other gains quickly followed, including the successful hire of Krzysztof Janowicz in 2011, Werner Kuhn in 2013, Charles Jones in the same year, and two new hires in 2014, Susan Cassels and Tim Devries. Each brought a new dimension to the Department.

Krzysztof Janowicz is an expert in Geographic Information Science, semantic interoperability, geospatial ontologies, and big data analysis. He was successfully “poached” from another highly ranked Geography Department, Penn State, and came with a reputation of excellence in instruction and high energy. His impact in the department has already been large, including teaching a highly popular graduate level course on Java Programming and attracting many highly talented new graduate students to the program. Werner Kuhn was hired as the Jack and Laura Dangermond Chair and is the new Director of the Spatial Center. Werner is also an expert in Geographic Information Science, with specializations in semantic interoperability, ontology, and human-computer interactions for geo-design. He has already taken a firm hand in directing the Spatial Center, and we expect great things.

Charles Jones is an expert in mesoscale modeling, with specializations in improved precipitation forecasts by inclusion of intermediate-scale temporal phenomena, such as the Madden-Julian Oscillation. Charles is also an expert in wind modeling and has worked extensively in fire danger assessment. Susan Cassels and Tim Devries are our two newest hires and bring two very different specializations to us. Susan is an expert in demography and human health and is interested in human behavior and social networks, using statistical modeling to understand better how these modify the spread of diseases such as AIDS. Tim Devries is an inverse modeler who helped develop the model OCIM, which provides a framework for incorporating ocean chemistry and biology into a sophisticated three dimensional circulation model to improve our understanding of global ocean biogeochemical dynamics. We are very excited to have Susan and Tim join us.

Considering what the hiring situation looked like in 2009, it is a pleasant surprise to have had the opportunity to hire five new excellent faculty. By my count, we are down seven and up five, which means we still have a bit of work cut out for us.

Other changes have also occurred. Early in my tenure, the department was finally awarded the office space it so richly deserved. Although this occurred under my watch, real credit goes to 20 years of labor from former Chairs, faculty, and staff who relentlessly kept the Department’s needs firmly in the sights of University Administration. Laboratory space remains an issue that has yet to be solved, unfortunately. We also switched email systems and phone communications, both cost savings measures that represent improvements overall but are not universally so. We also continued our commitment to campus service by creating the Interactive Campus Map, which continues to grow and expand over time. Dan Montello led an effort that succeeded in having the Joint PhD program with San Diego State University reviewed by the PRP, and we are implementing a number of revisions to improve that program.

Finally, we have seen many of the cuts in staff healed and have many new faces, including Bryan Karaffa, Ryan Kelley, Patricia Halloran, and for too brief a while, Jose Saleta and Karl Antonsson as Graduate Student Assistant Advisors. I am particularly pleased to report significant increases in undergraduate enrollment in our classes and record numbers of student applications to our graduate program, including 165 applicants in 2012, followed by 153 in 2013 and 164 in 2014 – all larger than any other year in the history of the department.

The success of a department does not depend upon a single individual but, rather, the collective efforts of all members. The fact that UCSB Geography has been so successful and has continued to flourish is a testimony to the excellence of our faculty, staff, and students. While I cannot say that being Department Chair has been easy, I can say that it has been made easier, and far more successful, by the help of so many colleagues, a staff that works wonders, and graduate students who make us proud. It has been an honor to serve the Department as its Chair. However, the clock is still ticking, and the time has come for me to move on.

Dar Roberts.*

*A final thanks is given to all of you who gave me and my family the thoughtful gift of tickets to see the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Loge level on June 29th. The fact that the pitcher was Clayton Kershaw was an added bonus (likely future hall of famer). The Dodgers defeated the Saint Louis Cardinals 6 to 0, and Clayton went on to strike out 13 Cardinals while posting his 28th inning without giving up a run.

1-10 of 29