A look at Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences

atmospheric and geospace sciences
© Pop Nukoonrat

Open Access Government places the spotlight on Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences from the perspective of the U.S. National Science Foundation

The Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS), part of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), seeks to further intellectual frontiers in Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. To achieve this, AGS invests in technology development, education and research so that discoveries can be made. Nurturing a diverse and vibrant scientific workforce and helping to achieve a sustainable and prosperous future are also key to AGS’s work.

Atmospheric and Geospace: Sciences overview

AGS encompasses fascinating research concerning the “physical, chemical, and biological processes that impact the composition and physical phenomena” and behaviour of “matter between the sun and the surface of the Earth”. These areas of research incorporate a remarkable array of crucial processes that impact society and humans, like tropospheric weather events, air quality, climate plus space weather events.

AGS-funded researchers pursue a wide range of work between them, such as the molecular precursors of cloud condensation nuclei, solar coronal mass ejections and transmission of energy between the Sun and the Earth and even paleoclimate studies of the Earth’s past as well as the speedy development of a tornado. Considering the vast scope of AGS’s work, it’s also worth pointing out that they set out to inspire and encourage “a diverse new generation of scientific leaders by promoting interest in the atmospheric and Geospace sciences”, for example, as well as “enhancing educational opportunities and experiences, and supporting early-career faculty”.(1)

Examples of NSF-funded research

Now, we’ll look at some examples of NSF-funded research in the field. In May, we are told that sea ice cover in the Southern Hemisphere is extremely variable, in the view of a University of Maine-led study. “This novel record significantly extends our view into sea ice dynamics over millennia, and hints at links between Southern and Northern Hemisphere sea ice extent and the role of ocean circulation,” explains Paul Cutler, a Program Director in NSF’s Office of Polar Programs. “It also provides valuable context for current trends in sea ice extent under a changing climate.”(2)

In other news, it was reported that lightning bolts break apart nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the atmosphere, in NSF-funded research. The scientists discovered that hydroxyl radical is important in the atmosphere since it “initiates chemical reactions and breaks down molecules such as the greenhouse gas methane”, we are told. From an instrument on a plane flown above Colorado and Oklahoma, data were collected. Chemical changes thunderstorms and lightning make in the atmosphere were analysed. A re-analysis of the thunderstorm and lightning dataset was performed by the team. “We were able to link the huge signals seen by our instrument flying through the thunderstorm clouds, to lightning measurements made from the ground,” Brune explains.

“These results are uncertain, however, partly because we do not know how these measurements apply to the rest of the globe,” he adds. “We only flew over Colorado and Oklahoma – most thunderstorms are in the tropics. The whole structure of High Plains storms is different than those in the tropics. Clearly, we need more aircraft measurements to reduce this uncertainty.”

Sylvia Edgerton, a Program Director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences adds that “although the hydroxyl radical OH can help remove some air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, it can react with other compounds, such as volatile organic compounds, to form secondary gases and aerosols, some of which are also air pollutants.”(3)

Finally, let’s briefly examine a new study suggesting that the Sun’s variability can impact seasonal weather variability on Earth. “Energy from the sun is the major driver of our entire Earth system and makes life on Earth possible,” says Scott McIntosh, a Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and Co-Author of the paper. “Even so, the scientific community has been unclear on the role solar variability plays in influencing weather and climate events here on Earth. This study shows there’s reason to believe it absolutely does and why the connection may have been missed in the past.”(4)

“If further research can establish that there is a physical connection and that changes on the sun are truly causing variability in the oceans, then we may be able to improve our ability to predict La Niña events,” McIntosh concludes

Maria Womack, a Program Director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, adds that “an apparent coincidence of the sun’s magnetic field cycles with the Earth’s La Niña climatic cycles. It could lead to a better understanding of the sun’s influence on Earth’s atmosphere, as well as more accurate predictions of seasonal changes in our weather.”

Concluding remarks

There are so many other examples of research we could look at that form part of AGS’s remit, such as how thicker-leaved tropical plants can flourish despite climate change(5) or why wildfires could have larger effects on climate change and cloud formation than


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