Erin Wetherley Awarded NASA NESSF Award

posted May 25, 2016, 8:43 AM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated May 25, 2016, 8:44 AM ]

Erin Wetherley was awarded a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) for her proposal, "Using HyspIRI-like Data to Quantify the Effects of Urban Vegetation and Materials on Microclimate at Sub-Pixel Scales." This is a competitive, multi-year award, so congratulations to Erin for her accepted proposal! 

AGU features many VIPERs

posted Jan 11, 2016, 6:46 PM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Jan 11, 2016, 7:40 PM ]

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) held it's annual fall meeting in San Francisco December 14-18, 2015. As the largest worldwide conference for the geophysical sciences, the AGU conference presents a great opportunity to talk and interact with top researchers in the field. Of course the majority of the VIPER lab made the jaunt up north to present their current research. While enjoying the conference, we gathered all current and past VIPERs for a reunion! We had a great showing of alumni: Mike Alonzo, Phil Dennison, Ryan Perroy, Becky Powell, Keely Roth, and Andrew Thorpe. All in all AGU was a lot of fun and good research was conducted.
Pictured: Erin Wetherley, Susan Meerdink
Pictured: Sarah Shivers, Alana Ayasse
Pictured: Gabriel Daldegan, Fernanda Ribeiro
Pictured: Zach Tane

VIPERs attend the 2015 HyspIRI Workshop

posted Oct 15, 2015, 3:03 PM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Oct 15, 2015, 3:03 PM ]

Six members of the Viper Lab attended the 2015 HyspIRI Science Workshop at Caltech. This workshop provided an update on mission status and ongoing science results for the proposed HyspIRI satellite mission.
Advisor Dar Roberts presented a talk titled "Combined hyperspectral VSWIR and broadband thermal infrared analysis  of vegetation-substrate mixtures in a mixed natural and anthropogenic landscape".  Also attending the three day workshop was a number of Viper alumni: Matt Clark, Keely Roth, and Andrew Thorpe.

VIPERs Shine at Fellowship Awards Reception

posted Oct 12, 2015, 11:38 AM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Oct 12, 2015, 3:12 PM ]

A reception honoring current recipients of UCSB and extramural fellowships in Engineering; Environmental Science and Management; and Mathematical, Life, and Physical Sciences was held on October 7, and Geography was particularly well-represented. Five VIPERs were feted at the event which was held at the Loma Pelona Center, 4 to 6 pm:

Brython Davis Graduate Fellowship: Erin Wetherley
Eugene Cota-Robles Fellowship: Alana Ayasse
NASA Fellowship: Susan Meerdink and Andrew Thorpe
National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship: Sarah Shivers

Carol Genetti (Dean of the Graduate Division) hosted the event while Don Lubach (Associate Dean of Students) gave a presentation titled “Networking Doesn’t Have To Make You Anxious: Tips for Working the Conference Reception”.

Dar Says Heat and Drought Are Killing Native Trees

posted Oct 2, 2015, 12:47 PM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Oct 2, 2015, 12:48 PM ]

"UC Santa Barbara scientists say record heat and drought are taking a deadly toll on California’s native trees." The following article in The UCSB Current was written by Jim Logan and posted October 1, 2015, with the title “Hot, Dry and Dying”:

If you want to see how hard California has suffered in the drought and record heat, take a stroll through a stand of oaks. You’ll likely see brown patches in the canopies and dead branches. There’s a good chance you’ll happen on a dead tree, too. The culprits are record heat and an unprecedented drought, say UC Santa Barbara scientists. For millions of years, oak trees — genus Quercus — have been some of the toughest plants in nature; but even they struggle in soils that haven’t seen significant rainfall since 2011. “It’s a very hardy, drought-tolerant tree, so it is really a measure of the depth of drought that you’re seeing this kind of dieback,” said Frank Davis, director of UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and professor at the campus’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

Oaks aren’t the only trees suffering. Conifers — the state’s pines — are dying by the millions, especially in the southern Sierra Nevada. Bark beetles, which are thriving in the drought, have killed thousands of acres of pines with no end in sight.

Periodic droughts in California, with its Mediterranean climate, are nothing new. What sets this one apart, however, is the extreme heat. On Sept. 17 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that August 2015 was the hottest August on record, with global land surface temperatures 2.05 degrees F above the 20th century average. That kind of heat wreaks havoc on the environment. “The state of the ecosystem in general is strongly tied to temperature,” Davis explained. “Warm the environment and it changes the water use by plants; it can change the population growth rates of insects and pathogens; it changes the rate of decomposition of organic matter; in a nutshell, it changes the metabolism of the ecosystem.”

Dar Roberts, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Geography who has done extensive research with remote sensing of weather, soil and vegetation in California, noted that the heat is only making the drought worse — and harder on the trees. “What high temperatures mean is a lot of evaporative demand,” Roberts explained. “The atmosphere can uptake lots of water and so the plants can lose a lot of water. That means you have less water to go around and the demand for water is greater, which means the plants are under more stress than they normally would be in a drought.” Unfortunately, he noted, we might as well get used to it. With climate change cranking up the Earth’s thermostat, he said, heat and drought could be “the new normal. Higher temperatures coupled with drought are likely going to make things worse than they have been in a long time.”

That’s bad news for the trees. The warm, dry conditions have made conifers susceptible to bark beetles, which are normally controlled by cold, snowy winters. The mountains, however, are warming faster than the lower elevations and snowpack the past three years was at the lowest levels ever recorded. “The combination of drought, which lets the beetles get started, plus warmer conditions where their populations can increase faster, lead to this eruption of beetles across the landscape and widespread pine dieback,” Davis explained. “We’re seeing that across many areas of the state now. Millions of trees.”

For the oaks, though, the story of their decline runs deeper — up to 60 feet below ground. That’s the potential root depth of a blue oak (Q. douglasii), the most drought-tolerant of California’s oaks. Even at those depths the soil holds minimal moisture after three years of drought. “The reason you’re seeing the oaks begin to die is that it’s been this gradual drying down of the soil as we continue to not get sufficient rain,” Roberts said.

Roberts has been tracking soil moisture at varying depths through the use of soil moisture probes for several years. He’s seen increasingly dry soils at depths that, in normal seasons, would be wetter the farther down he measured. “What we’ve found is that our deepest soil layers, the ones about 50 centimeters down, just haven’t gotten much moisture at all in four to five years,” Roberts said. “The last time they got a good soaking was 2011. So then you can imagine these trees. They have these deep roots and they’re tapping these deeper soil layers for moisture. If those layers are not getting replenished by rainfall, and these trees are perpetually drawing more moisture out of them, it’s not good for the trees.”

Not all oaks are created equally, however. Coast live oaks (Q. agrifolia), the most common on the South Coast, are evergreens with shallower roots than deciduous blue or valley oaks (Q. lobata). Both attributes make them slightly less drought-tolerant than the others. The deciduous oaks “can shed leaves in response to drought,” Davis explained. In addition, “the blue oaks are really capable of ratcheting down the water use during hot, dry conditions. They have a way of closing the pores in their leaves so there are lower rates of water loss. All of the oaks do that, but the blue oaks are particularly good at the mechanism of reducing the evaporation of tree canopy back into the atmosphere.”

Despite those adaptations, even the blue and valley oaks are suffering diebacks. The only thing that will stop it is rain. As it happens, help might be on the way. A strong El Niño is building in the Pacific Ocean — NOAA puts the likelihood of such an event at 90 percent — and with it the hope that it could drop large amounts of rain on California as it did in 1982-83 and 1997-98.

“First, it is not yet as intense as the 1997-98 one,” saidJoel Michaelsen, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Geography who specializes in climatology and meteorology. “There is a chance that it will continue to grow and reach a similar magnitude, but that is not at all certain. In any case, there is a better than 50-50 chance that Southern California will have a wetter than average winter. “The outlook for Northern California, where most of the state’s water comes from, is less certain,” Michaelsen continued. “Besides, the impact of a single year, no matter how wet, will be fleeting. It could potentially improve the state’s water outlook significantly, but there will always be another drought, and rising temperatures will likely make the impact more severe.”

Even if a wet El Niño arrives, it might not be enough. Roberts noted the rains will be need to be “well-behaved,” dropping large amounts of precipitation and then stopping for a few days to allow the water to percolate into the soil. It will take a series of such storms to penetrate our dry soils, he said. Rain without stop will merely cause runoff and prevent deep percolation. “If we’ve been sucking the water out of theses soils for three years, and they’re really dry now, this is a huge sponge and it’s going to take a lot of water to refill,” Roberts explained. “And the El Niño might not do it. It might get pretty far, but it may not be able to overcome three years of severe drought. It all depends on how it falls.”

Davis cautions that even perfectly timed rains won’t bring the oaks back immediately. They’re tough, but the damage is extensive. “One thing to consider is that these trees don’t rebound right away,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in days or months. It can take years because they’ve often suffered a lot of canopy dieback and they’ve suffered root dieback and they have to rebuild their root, branch and canopy systems. That may take several years before they’re back to full speed.”

Welcomes, Goodbye, and Celebrations

posted Aug 19, 2015, 8:54 AM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Aug 19, 2015, 8:56 AM ]

On August 16 the VIPER lab joined together in Dar's home for a summer Dar-Bque. This party was spurred on by many reasons: Tatiana Kuplich (who is soon to return to Brazil), Carmen and Alfonso (who are visiting from Spain), Vipers who have been taking exams, Vipers defending PhDs, and all others who have been slaving away in the currently humid climate of Santa Barbara. We had lots of food including ribs, brownies, and authentic food from Brazil and Spain. In addition there was good music, games, and fun to be had.  

Congratulations Mike!!

posted Aug 4, 2015, 9:57 AM by Susan Meerdink   [ updated Aug 4, 2015, 9:58 AM ]

Last Friday Mike Alonzo defended his dissertation titled: Urban Forest Ecosystem Analysis Using 
Fused Airborne Hyperspectral and Lidar Data. Later that night friends and family joined Mike at the Mercury Lounge to celebrate his successful dissertation defense. It was a fun time with good drinks and friends! Congratulations Mike!

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 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!   

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