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Student Climate Change Research: Challenges and Opportunities. David R. Brooks, PhD President, Institute for Earth Science Research and Education Thailand workshops, January, 2009. Introduction.

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Student climate change research challenges and opportunities

Student Climate Change Research: Challenges and Opportunities

David R. Brooks, PhD

President, Institute for Earth Science Research and Education

Thailand workshops,

January, 2009


  • Climate change is one of the most important science and public policy challenges for the 21st century.

  • Today's students will, as adults, inhabit a world that may be much different from the present world.

  • Can students and teachers promote understanding of climate change science?

  • Can students and teachers contribute to climate science?

What is climate
What is Climate?

  • Climate is not the same as weather, which includes short-term fluctuations due to seasons and movements of air masses, for example.

  • Climate can refer just to regions or the entire planet.

    ● average meteorological conditions in a

    particular place (30-year averages)

    ● global conditions (over 1000s of years and


  • “Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.” (science fiction author Robert Heinlein)

What is global climate change
What is “Global Climate Change”?

  • “Global climate change” means that average conditions on Earth are changing. In general, these changes have been associated with global warming.

  • Regional climate changes are already known to be occurring (e.g., melting of the Arctic ice cap and the retreat of glaciers). These changes are occurring rapidly by historical standards and, in some cases, more rapidly than scientists predicted.

  • Most Earth scientists agree that although future ice ages eventually will occur, currently the entire planet is getting warmer more quickly than in the past, and this will cause dramatic global disruptions unless it can be controlled.

  • Over the last decade or so, some evidence suggests that global warming has temporarily paused.

Thailand s climate
Thailand's Climate

(Describing a regional climate):

Thailand has a tropical climate with high temperatures and high relative humidity. It is dominated by the monsoon cycle. April and May are the hottest months. June brings the start of the monsoon season, a rainy period that lasts through October. Temperatures are somewhat cooler in November through February, with lower humidity and northeast breezes. The north and northeast are generally cooler than Bangkok between November and February, and hotter in summer. Temperatures in Thailand never fall below freezing (0°C).

Temperature and precipitation trends in thailand 1951 2002
Temperature and Precipitation Trends in Thailand, 1951-2002



(from Thailand Meteorological Office)

Global climate
Global Climate

Temperature inferred from O18/O16 ratios. CO2 measured in trapped air bubbles.

CO2 and temperature are positively correlated, but which is the cause and which is the effect?

Most climate scientists believe that increasing levels of CO2 are now causing global temperatures to rise (the greenhouse effect).

(Data from Russian Vostok Station ice cores, east Antarctica,

a joint Russian, U.S., and French project.)

Global climate since the last ice age
Global Climate Since the Last Ice Age

(Data from ice and sediment cores around the globe.)

Recent history
Recent History

(Since start of Industrial Revolution.)

Possible effects of climate change in southeast asia
Possible Effects of Climate Change in Southeast Asia

  • Sea levels may rise. Bangkok and its surroundings are within 1 m of present sea level. Valuable coastal farmland will be lost. Disappearance of beaches will hurt tourism.

  • There may be reduced rice production due to loss of land, higher temperatures, and changing rainfall patterns.

  • There will be consequences if farmers and fishermen cannot adapt to changing conditions. Spontaneous migration of large populations could be financially disruptive and create more serious social and environmental problems.

  • Higher temperatures demand more air conditioning, which increases greenhouse gases and contributes to the urban heat island effect.

What can we do about climate change
What Can We Do About Climate Change?

  • Quantify indicators of climate change.

  • Attempt to understand what kinds of human activities are contributing to climate change.

  • Make responsible personal and community choices about how we use energy.

  • Hold our governments responsible for investing in and implementing policies that protect the environment and move beyond an economy based on fossil fuels.

The first big question
The First Big Question:

Can students contribute to

climate change research?

My answer:

Yes, but it is not easy!

The second big question
The Second Big Question:

Should students contribute to

climate change research?

My answer:

Yes, because hands-on research is an essential part of the science process.

But, does research need to be an essential part of the science education process?

Countries, schools, teachers, and students must decide for themselves.

Studying global climate
Studying Global Climate

  • Satellite measurements play a major role in understanding global climate (and weather).

  • However, ground-based measurements are still very important for understanding how to interpret space-based measurements.

  • Can students collect data locally that contribute to understanding global climate?

  • How can teachers help their students relate their local weather and climate to the global “big picture”?

How do we do it
How Do We Do It?

  • Understand the problems and ask the right questions.

  • Form partnerships among scientists, teachers, and students, and their institutions.

  • Make long-term institutional commitments that do not depend just on individuals.

  • Make the equipment investments required to produce high-quality data. (Sometimes these investments can be small!)

  • Follow international standards for data collection.

  • Use automated data collection whenever appropriate.

  • Make a commitment to long-term data quality.

  • Focus on local measurements that are related to climate change.

What can we measure
What Can We Measure?

  • The sun

  • Earth’s atmosphere

  • Earth’s surface

In this presentation, we will consider:

Bringing the sun down to earth
Bringing the Sun Down to Earth

Weather and climate are controlled by the sun’s interaction

with Earth’s surface and atmosphere. This is a basic topic

for Earth science education. There are many measurements

students can make to improve understanding of these


Some things students and teachers can do
Some Things Students and Teachers Can Do

  • Photographing the solar aureole and the sky

  • Radiometry – recording total insolation and UV irradiance

  • Sun photometry – recording changes in aerosol optical depth and water vapor

  • Reflectivity – monitoring changes in surface reflectance (albedo)

  • Air and soil temperatures – monitoring long-term changes in soil temperature (related to soil moisture)

The sun
The Sun

  • Our sun is an “average” star.

  • It generates a power E of about E=3.9×1026 W, radiated uniformly in all directions.

  • The intensity of radiation decreases as the inverse square of the distance from the sun.

  • The solar constant is defined as the average power per unit area of solar radiation at Earth’s average distance from the sun, R:

    So = E/(4π R2) = 1370 W/m2

  • The amount of energy Earth receives depends on the time of year. It varies from

    Smax = So/(1 - e)2 = So/(0.983)2 = 1417 W/m2 in January

    Smin = So/(1 + e)2 = So/(1.017)2 = 1324 W/m2 in July

Observing the sun
Observing The Sun

  • Most measurements of the sun lie beyond the capabilities and resources of students.

  • However, a “solarscope” can be used to observe sunspots and measure the sun’s rotation.

Sunspots viewed through haze

from forest fires in southern

California, late 2003 (NASA)

The atmosphere
The Atmosphere

Table 2.2. Composition of pure dry

air near Earth’s surface.

  • The atmosphere is a very thin layer of gases (<100 km) that make the difference between a habitable planet and one that would not support advanced life as we understand it.

  • The atmosphere and its constituents reflect, scatter, and absorb sunlight.

Trace gases in the atmosphere
Trace Gases in the Atmosphere

Table 2.3. Trace gases in the atmosphere.

The greenhouse effect
The Greenhouse Effect

  • Some scientists define a “habitable zone” around a star as the range of distances over which water can exist naturally as a liquid. Does Earth fall within this zone?

  • The Earth/atmosphere system must be in radiative balance:

  • So, Earth lies outside the habitable zone!

incident energy = (πr2)So

absorbed energy = (πr2)So(1 – A)

emitted energy = (4πr2)σT4

Emitted energy must equal absorbed energy, on average:

(πr2)So(1 – A) = (4πr2)σT4


So(1 – A) = 4σT4

Solve for T, using A=0.3 (average global albedo):

T = [So(1 – A)/(4σ)](1/4) = [1370•(1 – 0.3)/(4•5.67×10-8)](1/4)

= 255 K = -18°C

The greenhouse effect1
The Greenhouse Effect

  • How can Earth support advanced life if it lies outside the habitable zone?

  • Earth’s actual average surface temperature is about 16°C. This is made possible by trace gases (“greenhouse gases”), including water vapor, in the atmosphere”

    So(1 - A) = 4σT4(1 – x)

    where x is a “greenhouse parameter.” For Earth, a value of about 0.4 produces an equilibrium temperature of about 16°C.

Observing the atmosphere
Observing The Atmosphere

  • Some properties of the atmosphere can be observed directly:

    ● clouds (type and coverage)

    ● visibility (haziness)

    ● solar aureole (with a camera only!)

  • Other properties can be measured indirectly from Earth’s surface:

    ● aerosols

    ● water vapor

Sky photography
Sky Photography

  • The “aureole” is the circular region of light-colored sky around the sun. It is caused by scattering from dust and other aerosols in the atmosphere. A very clear sky produces a small aureole, and a very “dirty” sky can produce a very large aureole.

  • Digital photographs of the sun can be analyzed to determine the size of the aureole, which can be related to atmospheric conditions, including aerosols.

  • Photos of the sky, pointing away from the sun, can also be related to air pollution and aerosols.

Photographing the solar aureole
Photographing the Solar Aureole

Do NOT look through

an optical viewfinder!!

Direct sun photos may

damage a digital


Canon PowerShot

A530, F5.6 @ 1/1600 s.

Use the same F-stop

and shutter speed

for every photo.

ImageJ software, available as a free download


How does sky photography become climate science
How Does Sky PhotographyBecome Climate Science?

  • Always use the same camera – one with manual settings for focus, exposure time, and f-stop.

  • Use the same f-stop and exposure settings, and focus at infinity. (Do not use “automatic” settings.)

  • Use the highest resolution that your camera supports.

  • Always photograph the same scene, and include a little land or water below the horizon, to track seasonal changes on the ground.

  • Photograph the scene at the same time of day, for example, sunset or solar noon.

  • Do not apply digital enhancements or resize or compress the image.

  • Collect images regularly over long periods of time.

  • Keep careful records about scenes, dates, times, and camera settings, including your latitude, longitude, and elevation.

Earth s surface
Earth’s Surface

  • There are two basic areas of interest:

    ● weather

    ● climate

  • Weather is easy to measure, but climate is not!

  • Weather measurements can be made over short periods of time. Climate must be measured over very long periods of time.

  • Climate measurements require a long-term institutional commitment.

Measurements at earth s surface
Measurements at Earth’s Surface

  • Basic meteorological measurements (air temperature, wind, precipitation, relative humidity)

  • Solar radiation

  • Soil/water temperature

  • Surface temperature

    and reflectivity

Measuring air temperature
Measuring Air Temperature

  • The international standard is a “Stevenson screen”

  • The GLOBE thermometer shelter is smaller. Are temperatures different? I don’t know.

Stevenson screen

GLOBE shelter

80 x 61 x 59 cm

50 x 28 x 20 cm

Does anybody need more temperature measurements
Does Anybody Need More Temperature Measurements?

  • Yes! There are hardly any long-term simultaneous records of air temperature and soil temperature.

  • These data are important for agriculture and pest management.

  • Changes in soil temperature can be indicators of climate change (for example, melting permafrost).

  • The relationship between soil and air temperature depends on soil moisture, another indicator of climate change (in tropical climates?).

Measuring insolation student pyranometer data
Measuring Insolation:Student Pyranometer Data

Site evaluation for solar power
Site Evaluation for Solar Power

1-minute values of insolation…

integrated over 24 hours.

Cloud climatologies in texas
Cloud Climatologies in Texas

1-hr means and

standard deviations of

1-min samples

Uv radiometry
UV Radiometry

Smoke in the atmosphere reduces

UV radiation reaching Earth’s surface.

This can disrupt ecosystems and may

be associated with bird flu.* UV-A

radiation can be monitored with a

relatively inexpensive (~$150) radiometer.

It uses a blue LED that responds to

radiation with a strong peak around

372 nm.

*Mims, Forrest M. III.

Avian Influenza and UV-B Blocked by Biomass Smoke.

Environmental Health Perspectives, 113, 12, 806-807, December 2005.

Measuring aerosols
Measuring Aerosols

  • Sun photometers can be used to monitor absorption and scattering of sunlight by particles in the atmosphere (aerosols), by measuring the “aerosol optical thickness.”

  • The effects of aerosols are one of the larger uncertainties in computer models used to predict future climate.

  • The sun photometer shown here uses LEDs to measure aerosol optical thickness at green and red wavelengths.

  • Hundreds of these instruments have been used around the world, with student data included in papers published in peer-reviewed science journals.


  • I have briefly described some ways that scientists, teachers, and students can work together to understand Earth’s climate. Other scientists will have other ideas.

  • Students CAN make significant contributions to climate science research, because predictions of future climate depend on having many sources of reliable long-term data.

  • The stable physical environment around schools provides major advantages for this kind of research.

  • Climate change research must be conducted over the long term – years, rather than months.

  • School-based student research must be chosen carefully and conducted in collaboration with scientists.

  • School administrators and the education establishment must be willing and able to provide long-term institutional support, including science support that goes beyond what is required just to meet educational objectives.

Student climate change research challenges and opportunities

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss student/teacher roles in understanding and measuring climate change.I hope there are many questions!