Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences in the U.S.

atmospheric and geospace
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A look at the work of the Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division of the U.S. National Science Foundation

The Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS), part of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), provides funding for research, technology and education connected to the physical, chemical and biological processes that impact the composition and physical phenomena and behaviour between the Sun and the surface of the Earth.

The AGS comprises three sections: the Atmosphere Section, the Geospace Section and the NCAR & Facilities Section.

The Atmosphere Section covers the Atmospheric Chemistry, Climate and Large-scale Dynamics, Paleoclimate, and Physical and Dynamic Meteorology programmes.

The Geospace Section is comprised of the Aeronomy, Magnetospheric Physics, Solar & Heliospheric Physics, Space Weather and Geospace Facilities programmes. The section also runs several cross-programme solicitations, such as Coupling, Energetics & Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions (CEDAR), Geospace Environment Modelling (GEM), Solar, Heliospheric, and INterplanetary Environment (SHINE) and the CubeSat- based Science Missions for Geospace & Atmospheric Research.

The NCAR & Facilities Section has primary oversight for the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), one of the NSF’s Federally Funded Research and Development Centres, and also contains the Lower Atmosphere Observing Facilities and educational opportunities programme.

AGS-funded scientists cover a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, from solar coronal mass ejections and the transmission of energy between the Sun and the Earth to molecular precursors of cloud condensation nuclei, and from paleoclimate studies to the rapid development of tornadoes.

These processes can span an array of intellectual ground and AGS partners with other programmes within geosciences and across NSF directorates, as well as with other federal agencies, to help ensure it is funding the best possible science.

The ASG also works to encourage and inspire a diverse new generation by promoting interest in the atmospheric and Geospace sciences, offering educational opportunities and experiences, and supporting early career development, including research education for undergraduates and a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship programme for recent PhDs.

In addition, ASG frequently takes part in NSF-wide initiatives, such as the longstanding Major Research Instrumentation programme.

Examples of ASG-supported research

A recent study published in the journal Science reported that rapid warming in the Arctic is a likely driver of recent extreme weather in the United States.

The findings establish a link between climate change and a phenomenon known as the stratospheric polar vortex, or SPV, disruption. While climate warming is expected to lead to increases in some weather extremes, including heatwaves and precipitation events, it is not widely considered to drive severe winter weather events.

“AGS-funded scientists cover a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, from solar coronal mass ejections and the transmission of energy between the Sun and the Earth to molecular precursors of cloud condensation nuclei, and from paleoclimate studies to the rapid development of tornadoes.”

However, contrary to model predictions, winter weather extremes across the Northern Hemisphere – intense snowfall events and anomalous cold snaps – are reportedly becoming more frequent. One notable example is the U.S. Southern Plains “cold wave” of February 2021, which resulted in the collapse of the Texas energy grid and record damages estimated at nearly $200 billion.

It is hypothesised that accelerated warming in the Arctic, also known as Arctic amplification or AA, is driving these events by disrupting the Arctic SPV – an atmospheric feature defined by the strong westerly winds that encircle the Arctic and normally keep its cold air contained.

Whether AA and its impact on the SPV variability are linked to recent winter weather extremes has been unclear. Atmospheric scientist Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues combined observational analyses of the SPV over the last 40 years with new climate model experiments.

These experiments revealed a link that implicates rapid Arctic warming and its effects, namely sea ice loss and increased Eurasian snow cover, with SPV disruption and the increased frequency of extreme mid-latitude winter weather.

In addition, research published in Global & Planetary Change found that mountaintop glacier ice in the tropics of all four hemispheres covers significantly less area – in one case as much as 93% less – than it did just 50 years ago, while a Stanford University-led study published in Science has revealed the physical mechanism behind plumes of ice and water vapour that form above most of the world’s most violent tornadoes.

Elsewhere, modelling by Oregon State University showed that human-caused wildfire ignitions in central Oregon are expected to remain steady over the next four decades, while lightning-caused ignitions are expected to decline. However, the average size of blaze from either cause is expected to increase.

The research, published in Environmental Research Letters, is expected to help local decision-makers understand how a changing climate might affect fire regimes and inform fire preparedness, prevention and restrictions.

These are just a few examples of the wide-ranging research projects funded by ASG as part of its mission to enable new discoveries, support a more diverse scientific workforce and contribute to a more prosperous and sustainable future.


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