NOAA Research covered the globe in 2011

December 21, 2011

NOAA scientists plumbed the deep ocean, probed the heights of the stratosphere, and surveyed some of the fiercest storm systems on Earth in meeting 2011's scientific challenges. Their discoveries are paying off in longer storm warning lead times, better understanding of our climate, and new knowledge about environmental disasters.

NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) conducts the scientific research that advances weather forecasting, climate prediction, and environmental modeling, as well as our understanding of coastal threats such as tsunamis and oil spills. While every year brings its unique challenges, 2011 set a new record for the most billion dollar weather and climate disasters in a single year - 12.

"Our research improves the ability to forecast where a hurricane will make landfall and lengthens tornado warning lead times," said Craig McLean, acting assistant administrator for NOAA OAR. "As challenging a year 2011 has been, our scientists have matched it with outstanding environmental research accomplishments."

Below are a few of the year's highlights:

Less Water Loss in Future Great Lakes Levels: Oct. 19 - Previous studies have pointed to falling water levels in the Great Lakes, but a new NOAA study gives a more optimistic outlook. Scientists at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., have devised a new approach to modeling future water levels. Their work, available online in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, predicts either a smaller drop or an actual rise in lake water levels under varying climate change scenarios. The impact of climate change on Great Lakes water levels is a critical question for the region's economy and environmental resources, as well as for one of the nation's key shipping corridors.

NOAA Examines Causes of Hurricane Landfall: Oct. 7 - The 2010 Atlantic hurricane season was extremely active, but no hurricanes made landfall in the United States. With estimated costs being around $1 million per mile to evacuate a coastline, it is important to understand what directs hurricane tracks. Researchers at the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory found that the Atlantic Warm Pool - a large body of warm water that includes the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and western tropical North Atlantic - could play an important role in dictating hurricane track and frequency. Results were published Oct. 7 in Geophysical Research Letters.

More Small Particles in the Atmosphere Linked to Less Monsoon Rainfall in South Asia: Sept. 29 - An important part of the global water cycle, the South Asian summer monsoon provides about 80 percent of the region's annual precipitation, and touches the lives of more than 20 percent of the world's population. However, monsoon rainfall has decreased over the second half of the 20th century. Scientists in the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., looked for an explanation and found that human-caused increases in aerosols (fine particles in the atmosphere) account for the drying trend. Their results were published in Science on Sept. 29. This is the first detection and attribution study to use GFDL's latest global climate model "CM3," developed over the past 5 years.

Deepwater Horizon Burns Release More than One Million Pounds of Soot: Sept. 20 -- NOAA scientists found the black smoke from controlled burns during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill pumped more than one million pounds of black carbon (soot) pollution into the atmosphere, an amount roughly equal to the total black carbon emissions normally released by all ships that travel the Gulf of Mexico in a nine-week period. Their study was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

NOAA Sends Balloons Aloft to Collect Data for Renewable Wind Energy Project: Sept. 12 - Forecasting the winds at different heights in the atmosphere in the vicinity of wind turbines is a critical component to estimating wind power, an increasingly important facet of the renewable energy portfolio. Scientists at the NOAA Air Resources Laboratory designed and launched special weather balloons that contain a small, lightweight instrument package that transmits information on wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and humidity, in real time, back to a ground station. Data collected will be used by the weather forecast models to help wind farms estimate how much power they can produce and when they can schedule maintenance. ARL's research is in collaboration with Duke Energy as part of a three-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Duke Energy.

Explorers Discover Chemosynthetic Shrimp, Tubeworms Together for First Time at Hydrothermal Vent: Sept. 7 - Ocean explorers on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer observed two species of marine life scientists believe have never before been seen together at a hydrothermal vent -- chemosynthetic shrimp and tubeworms. They also observed the first known live tubeworms ever seen at a hydrothermal vent in Atlantic waters during an expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise south of Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. Most other life on Earth is photosynthetic -- relying on energy from the sun. These new hydrothermal vent animals, by contrast, exist on the deep and dark ocean floor where no sunlight penetrates. Instead, they derive energy from chemicals that rise in the hot water of hydrothermal vents making them chemosynthetic.

Sea Grant Integral to Development of First Federally-Approved Ocean SAMP: July 22 - Rhode Island Sea Grant worked with the state's Coastal Resources Management Council to develop and implement a coastal and marine spatial planning tool known as a special area management plan (SAMP). SAMPs are scientific ecosystem-based management plans that comprehensively review ecosystems, regulatory environments, and social structures, and propose guidance on regulations to be adopted by the state. On July 22, Rhode Island's seventh SAMP became the largest ever, covering nearly 1,500 square miles. The SAMP incorporates extensive research and input from state, federal, tribal, and local agencies that address healthy habitats, commercial and recreational fishing, cultural heritage, recreation and tourism, renewable offshore wind energy, and global climate change.

NOAA Technology Helps Red Cross Respond Faster: June 2 - In the record-breaking 2011 tornado season, emergency responders saved precious hours in the immediate aftermath of a devastating storm strike with a tool developed by the NOAA National Severe Storm Lab. On-Demand Severe Weather Verification System, an experimental Web-based tool, was developed to help confirm when and where severe weather has occurred and can identify the location and intensity of radar-detected circulations. The tool was used after a devastating April 2011 tornado in the southeastern United States. In addition, local American Red Cross chapters, emergency managers, and National Weather Service forecast offices used it for disaster assessment and response. On Demand is available at

Rainwatch Keeps Eye on Rainfall for West African Farmers: May 11 - After severe drought in 2009 caused many in the western African nation Niger to face acute hunger, the following year was the region's wettest since 1964. NOAA-funded researchers hope a new climate information system they developed will help West African farmers help themselves. Rainwatch is a prototype geographic information system that monitors monsoon rainfall and tracks season rainfall attributes. This information is crucial because sub-Saharan Africa depends more strongly and directly on rainfall than any other region on Earth, yet the area has the fewest rainfall monitoring stations and significant delays that occur between data collection and its availability for users. Rainwatch automates and streamlines key aspects of rainfall data management, processing and visualization. A major appeal is its simplicity - all interactive interfaces, symbols and names used are unpretentious and self explanatory.

Listen to an Earthquake Underwater: April 25 - Earthquakes are felt more often than heard, but scientists in the NOAA Vents Program say the sound of earthquakes could help improve our ability to detect earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the deep ocean. Scientists with the NOAA Vents Program at Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory captured the sounds of the March 11, 2011, Japan earthquake using an underwater microphone near the Aleutian Islands - 900 miles from the quake epicenter. The Japan earthquake was the largest source of ocean sound ever recorded on NOAA's hydrophone arrays and provides insight into the physics behind how sound is transmitted from the Earth's crust into the ocean and then propagates through the Pacific Ocean basin.

Extreme Cold and Clouds Trigger Ozone Depletion as Sun Returns up North: March 17 - The NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory found an unexpected increase in ozone depletion in the Arctic region in early 2011. The ozone layer protects the Earth's surface from damaging ultraviolet radiation. The higher rate of depletion is attributed to unusually cold upper-atmosphere temperatures creating conditions favorable for reactions between sunlight and air pollutants that degrade ozone molecules. To better monitor the high rate of depletion, NOAA researchers in Greenland are doubling the frequency of ozone measurements using research balloons in the coming weeks. While the current amount of ozone is low for the Arctic in early spring at 310 Dobson units (DU), usually 400 DU, it is still much higher than the springtime level observed for the Antarctic ozone hole around 125 DU.

Calculating Underwater Oil Spill Rate from Air Chemistry Hundreds of Feet above the Surface: March 14 - NOAA scientists and academic partners found a way to use air chemistry measurements taken hundreds of feet above the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill to estimate how fast gases and oil were leaking from the reservoir thousands of feet underwater. The scientists also determined the fate of most of those gas and oil compounds using atmospheric chemistry data collected by a research aircraft. The researchers found that the spilled gases and oil obeyed a simple rule: whether a compound can dissolve or evaporate determines where it goes in the marine environment. This finding could enable airborne evaluation of the magnitude of future spills. Knowing where the spilled gas and oil mixture ended up could also help resource managers and others trying to understand environmental exposure levels.

NOAA Accurately Predicts Arrival of Tsunami Triggered by Japanese Earthquake: March 11 - Research models developed at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and used by the NOAA Tsunami Warning Centers accurately predicted the wave arrival time within 15 minutes for Hawaii, Alaska, and the U.S. West Coast during the Honshu tsunami event on March 11, 2011. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake was detected by a NOAA PMEL-developed Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART®) buoy three minutes after the earthquake. The tsunami was measured 25 minutes later. Tsunami wave heights for the United States were also accurately predicted using tsunami models and verified with tide gauge data. The research to operations success of the buoys and models gave residents in Hawaii and on the U.S West Coast significant time to prepare for the tsunami, saving lives and property.

Insights from Oil Spill Air Pollution Study Have Applications Beyond Gulf: March 10 - During a special airborne mission to study the air-quality impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA researchers discovered a previously unknown way by which air pollution particles form. Predicted four years ago, this discovery could change the way urban air quality is understood and predicted. The NOAA-led team showed that although the lightest compounds in the oil evaporated within hours, it was the heavier compounds, which took longer to evaporate, that contributed most to the formation of air pollution particles downwind. Because those compounds are also emitted by vehicles and other combustion sources, the discovery is important for understanding air quality in general, not only near oil spills. The paper on this study was published in the March 11, 2011, edition of Science.

NOAA Hot on Methane's Trail: Feb. 22 - A study led by scientists from NOAA-funded Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory now predicts a 29 to 59 percent decrease in permafrost by 2200. Published in the April 2011 edition of the journal Tellus B, the study estimates a large release of carbon - in the form of carbon dioxide and methane - from thawing permafrost over the next century, though much is still unknown about how these emissions will accelerate climate warming. While carbon dioxide is the most abundant and has a much longer life span, methane is more potent at trapping heat. Large chunks of soil collapse as a result of permafrost thaw and erosion. When permafrost thaws, microbes digest vegetation, which results in the release of methane.

Sea Grant scientist's groundbreaking spawning method earns patent: Feb. 10 - The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued a patent on a method developed by Wisconsin Sea Grant scientist Fred Binkowski for yellow perch to spawn year round. This work creates the potential for greater availability of this popular fish, and enables the year-round production of perch fingerlings. This is a significant benefit for the urban aquaculture industry. By manipulating water temperature and light in fish tanks, the researcher was able to trick the yellow perch, which normally only spawn in April and May in Wisconsin, to spawn year round. Breeding the fish in captivity also carries the benefit of dramatically increasing survival.
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