Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

A decline in the population of emperor penguins appears likely this century as climate change reduces the extent of Antarctic sea ice, according to a detailed projection published this week.

The study, led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), with co-authors from the CIRES, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other organizations, focuses on a much-observed colony of emperor penguins in Terre Adélie, Antarctica. The authors conclude that the number of breeding pairs may fall by about 80 percent by 2100.

“The projected decreases in sea ice may fundamentally alter the Antarctic environment in ways that threaten this population of penguins,” says NCAR scientist Marika Holland, a co-author of the study.

The study uses a set of sophistical computer simulations of climate as well as a statistical model of penguin demographics. Building on previous work, it examines how the sea ice may vary at key times during the year such as during egg laying, incubation, rearing chicks, and non- breeding season, as well as the potential influence of sea ice concentrations on males and females.

The authors stress that their projections contain large uncertainties, because of the difficulties in projecting both climate change and the response of penguins. However, almost all of their computer simulations pointed to a significant decline in the colony at Terre Adélie, a coastal region of Antarctica where French scientists have conducted penguin observations for more than 50 years.
“Our best projections show roughly 500 to 600 breeding pairs remaining by the year 2100,” says lead author Stéphanie Jenouvrier, a WHOI biologist. “Today, the population size is around 3,000 breeding pairs.”

She noted that another penguin population, the Dion Islets penguin colony close to the West Antarctic Peninsula, has disappeared, possibly because of a decline in Antarctic sea ice.

The new research represents a major collaboration between biologists and climate scientists to assess the potential impacts of climate change on a much-studied species.

Published this week in the journal Global Change Biology, the study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, NCAR’s sponsor. Other funders include WHOI; the French National Agency for Research (ANR) program on biodiversity; the ANR REMIGE program (Behavioral and Demographic Responses of Indian Ocean Marine Top Predators to Global Environmental Changes); the Zone Research Workshop for the Antarctic and Subantarctic Environment (ZATA); the Paul Emilie Victor Institute (IPEV); Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; Marie-Curie European Fellowship; and the U.S. Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) visiting fellowship.

Vulnerable emperors of the ice

At nearly four feet tall, emperors are the largest species of penguin. They are vulnerable to changes in sea ice, where they breed and raise their young almost exclusively. If that ice breaks up and disappears early in the breeding season, massive breeding failure may occur, Jenouvrier says.

Disappearing sea ice may also affect the penguins’ food sources. They feed primarily on fish, squid, and krill, a shrimplike animal that feeds on zooplankton and phytoplankton that grow on the underside of ice. If the ice goes, Jenouvrier says, so too will the plankton, causing a ripple effect through the food web that may starve the various species that penguins rely on as prey.

To project how the extent of sea ice in the region will change this century, Holland and another co-author, Julienne Stroeve, a sea ice specialist from CIRES National Snow and Ice Data Center.(NSIDC), evaluated 20 of the world’s leading computer-based climate models. They selected the five models that most closely reproduced changes in actual Antarctic sea ice cover during the 20th century.
“When a computer simulation performs well in reproducing past climate conditions, that suggests its projections of future climate conditions are more reliable,” Holland says.

The team evaluated simulations from each of the 20 climate models. The simulations were based on a scenario of moderate growth in greenhouse gas emissions during this century. The moderate growth scenario portrays future reliance by society on a combination of greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels as well as renewable energy sources.

The simulations showed a decline in sea ice coverage across a large region by Terre Adélie at key times in the penguin breeding cycle, although they differed in the details.

Jenouvrier used the output from the climate models to determine how changes in temperature and sea ice might affect the emperor penguin population at Terre Adélie, studying such details as how the sea ice was likely to vary during breeding season and how it could affect chicks, breeding pairs, and non-breeding adults. She found that if global temperatures continue to rise at their current rate—causing sea ice in the region to shrink—penguin population numbers most likely will diminish slowly until about 2040, after which they would decline at a much steeper rate as sea ice coverage drops below a usable threshold.

The authors say that more research is needed to determine whether emperor penguins may be able to adapt to changing conditions or disperse to regions where the sea ice is more habitable.

Human reliance on the Antarctic

Rising temperature in the Antarctic isn’t just a penguin problem, according to Hal Caswell, a senior mathematical biologist at WHOI and collaborator on the study. As sea ice coverage continues to shrink, the resulting changes in the Antarctic marine environment will affect other species, and may affect humans as well.

“We rely on the functioning of those ecosystems,” he says. “We eat fish that come from the Antarctic. We rely on nutrient cycles that involve species in the oceans all over the world. Understanding the effects of climate change on predators at the top of marine food chains—like emperor penguins—is in our best interest, because it helps us understand ecosystems that provide important services to us."

CIRES co-authors of the study were Mark Serreze and Julienne Stroeve of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in the United States.

About the article

Title: Effects of climate change on an emperor penguin population: analysis of coupled demographic and climate models

Authors:  Stéphanie Jenouvrier, Marika Holland, Julienne Stroeve, Christophe Barbraud, Henri Weimerskirch, Mark Serreze, and Hal Caswell

Journal: Global Change Biology

Press release courtesy of NCAR/UCAR Communications

The White House today named CIRES scientists David Noone and Rebecca Washenfelder as recipients of the 2011 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers.

Noone’s award citation acknowledges him for his “innovative use of stable isotope tracers and modeling efforts directed towards an integrated understanding of the cycling of water and carbon dioxide through the atmosphere, and for actively engaging students in cutting-edge research at middle schools.”

“The award is a fabulous honor,” Noone said. “It is a tremendous recognition that I’m delighted to share with the wonderful students and colleagues with whom I work, and it is truly humbling.”
Currently, Noone, a CIRES Fellow, is working with nearly 200 school children to collect rainwater that falls on rooftops. His team then analyzes the samples’ water chemistry to determine where the water came from and eventually what its fate will be. The rainfall data being collected complement other measurements that he makes using advanced laser spectrometers, and together, they provide a critical body of information that is essential for advancing state-of-the-art climate models.

“Water is so pervasive in so many aspects of our environment, but it remains a challenge to understand both how changing climate will alter the water cycle and how changes in the water cycle influence climate,” Noone said.

“Understanding how water moves around in the air and on the land surface—the water cycle—will help us know how to use water more effectively for agriculture, environmental sustainability, and recreation and also improve estimates of regional climate change,” Noone said. “This project is not really possible without combining citizen science—in this case, the help of students—with the work my group is doing in CIRES.”

Noone, who has given talks both in schools and in the local community about his research, sees combining climate research with outreach work as important for both raising awareness about important environmental issues and increasing interest in science. “I really enjoy science. I think it is really exciting, and I like to share that with people,” Noone said. “It is just a lot of great fun figuring out how the natural world works.” He also hopes that his enthusiasm for science will inspire middle-school students to consider careers in science.

An article about his research and involvement with education and outreach, “Science ‘n’ Schools Symbiosis,” will be coming out in the next edition of CIRES’s science magazine, Spheres (September 2012 edition). To see a presentation about his work, click here, and for a video about his work, click here.

Washenfelder’s award citation acknowledges her for her “pioneering work in developing and applying new measurement techniques to study atmospheric chemistry related to climate and air quality and for commitment to science education and outreach.” 

Washenfelder, an atmospheric chemist, developed a new instrument that uses light to measure the concentrations of trace pollutants in the atmosphere. She used this instrument during field measurements in Los Angeles, Calif., to study the sources and composition of aerosols—tiny airborne particles that can impact both air quality and climate. It is hoped that Washenfelder’s new instrument can be extended for field measurements of other atmospheric species as well.

Washenfelder has also been actively involved in education and outreach, working to communicate the importance and progress of her research to the public. To read an article on her research, work that has helped improve air quality in Houston, Texas, click here. To listen below to a podcast with Washenfelder:

Washenfelder, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in environmental science and engineering from the California Institute of Technology, says she first became interested in her chosen career while a student at Pomona College in Los Angeles County. As she ran around the college’s track, she says, she sometimes couldn’t even see the nearby San Gabriel Mountains because of the smog. “There would just be a brown haze and no mountains,” Washenfelder said. “I was fascinated by the air quality and decided that I wanted to study atmospheric chemistry.”

“I am honored to receive this award,” she said.

Both Washenfelder and Noone are faculty scientists with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder; Noone also serves on the faculty of CU’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. According to William Lewis, CIRES Interim Director, “these two outstanding young scientists are making discoveries of great fundamental and practical importance; they illustrate the great strength of environmental sciences at University of Colorado Boulder as developed through collaboration between CU’s institutes and departments.”

David Noone, CIRES Fellow,, 303-735-6073
Rebecca Washenfelder, CIRES scientist,, 303-497-4810 
Karin Vergoth, CIRES,, 303-497-5125

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

Despite sharp increases in carbon dioxide emissions by humans in recent decades that are warming the planet, Earth’s vegetation and oceans continue to soak up about half of them, according to a surprising a new study conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder, CIRES and NOAA.

The study, led by CU Boulder postdoctoral researcher Ashley Ballantyne, looked at global CO2 emissions reports from the past 50 years and compared them with rising levels of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere during that time, primarily because of fossil fuel burning.  The results showed that while CO2 emissions had quadrupled, natural carbon “sinks” that sequester the greenhouse gas doubled their uptake in the past 50 years, lessening the warming impacts on Earth’s climate.

 “What we are seeing is that the Earth continues to do the heavy lifting by taking up huge amounts of carbon dioxide, even while humans have done very little to reduce carbon emissions,” said Ballantyne. “How long this will continue, we don’t know.”

A paper on the subject was published in the Aug. 2 issue of Nature. Co-authors on the study include CIRES scientist John Miller, CU Boulder Professor Jim White, CU Boulder doctoral student Caroline Alden and NOAA scientist Pieter Tans.

According to Alden, the trend of sinks gulping atmospheric carbon cannot continue indefinitely. "It’s not a question of whether or not natural sinks will slow their uptake of carbon, but when,” she said.

“We’re already seeing climate change happen despite the fact that only half of fossil fuel emissions stay in the atmosphere while the other half is drawn down by the land biosphere and oceans,” Alden said. “If natural sinks saturate as models predict, the impact of human emissions on atmospheric CO2 will double.”

Ballantyne said recent studies by others have suggested carbon sinks were declining in some areas of the globe, including parts of the Southern Hemisphere and portions of the world’s oceans. But the new Nature study showed global CO2 uptake by Earth’s sinks essentially doubled from 1960 to 2010, although increased variations from year-to-year and decade-to-decade suggests some instability in the global carbon cycle, he said.

White, who directs CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, likened the increased pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere to a car going full throttle. “The faster we go, the more our car starts to shake and rattle,” he said. “If we drive 100 miles per hour, it is going shake and rattle a lot more because there is a lot more instability, so it’s probably time to back off the accelerator,” he said. “The same is true with CO2 emissions.”

The atmospheric CO2 levels were measured at 40 remote sites around the world by researchers from NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., including stations at the South Pole and on the Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii.

Carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere primarily by fossil fuel combustion and by forest fires and some natural processes, said Ballantyne. “When carbon sinks become carbon sources, it will be a very critical time for Earth,” said Ballantyne.  “We don’t see any evidence of that yet, but it’s certainly something we should be looking for.”

“It is important to understand that CO2 sinks are not really sinks in the sense that the extra carbon is still present in Earth’s vegetation, soils and the ocean,” said NOAA’s Tans. “It hasn’t disappeared. What we really are seeing is a global carbon system that has been pushed out of equilibrium by the human burning of fossil fuels.”

Despite the enormous uptake of carbon by the planet, CO2 in the atmosphere has climbed from about 280 parts per million just prior to the Industrial Revolution to about 394 parts per million today, and the rate of increase is speeding up.  The global average of atmospheric CO2 is expected to reach 400 ppm by 2016, according to scientists.

The team used several global CO2 emissions reports for the Nature study, including one by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. They concluded about 350 billion tons of carbon -- the equivalent of roughly 1 trillion tons of CO2 -- had been emitted as a result of fossil fuel burning and land use changes from 1959 to 2010, with just over half moving into sinks on land or in the oceans.

According to the study, the scientists observed decreased CO2 uptake by Earth’s land and oceans in the 1990s, followed by increased CO2 sequestering by the planet from 2000 to 2010. “Seeing such variation from decade to decade tells us that we need to observe Earth’s carbon cycle for significantly longer periods in order to help us understand what is occurring,” said Ballantyne.

Scientists also are concerned about the increasing uptake of CO2 by the world’s oceans, which is making them more acidic. Dissolved CO2 changes seawater chemistry by forming carbonic acid that is known to damage coral, the fundamental structure of coral reef ecosystems that harbor 25 percent of the world’s fish species.

The study was funded by the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation and NOAA.

A total of 33.6 billion tons of CO2 were emitted globally in 2010, climbing to 34.8 billion tons in 2011, according to the International Energy Agency. Federal budget cuts to U.S. carbon cycle research are making it more difficult to measure and understand both natural and human influences on the carbon cycle, according to the research team.

 “The good news is that today, nature is helping us out,” said White also a professor in CU’s geological sciences department.  “The bad news is that none of us think nature is going to keep helping us out indefinitely.  When the time comes that these carbon sinks are no longer taking up carbon, there is going to be a big price to pay.”

Ashley Ballantyne, 760-846-1391
Jim White, 303-492-5494
Jim Scott, CU media relations, 303-492-3114

In California’s Los Angeles Basin, levels of some vehicle-related air pollutants have decreased by about 98 percent since the 1960s, even as area residents now burn three times as much gasoline and diesel fuel. Between 2002 and 2010 alone, the concentration of air pollutants called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) dropped by half, according to a new study by CIRES and NOAA scientists.

“The reason is simple: Cars are getting cleaner,” said CIRES scientist Carsten Warneke whose research is funded by NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder. VOCs, primarily emitted from the tailpipes of vehicles, are a key ingredient in the formation of ground-level ozone which, at high levels, can harm people’s lungs and damage crops and other plants.

The magnitude of the drop in VOC levels was surprising, even to researchers who expected some kind of decrease resulting from California’s longtime efforts to control vehicle pollution. The study was published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

“Even on the most polluted day during a research mission in 2010, we measured half the VOCs we had seen just eight years earlier,” Warneke said. “The difference was amazing.”

The 98 percent drop in VOCs in the last 50 years does not mean that ozone levels have dropped that steeply; the air chemistry that leads from VOCs to ozone is more complex than that. Ozone pollution in the Los Angeles Basin has decreased since the 1960s, but levels still don’t meet ozone standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Requirements for catalytic converters, use of reformulated fuels less prone to evaporate, and improved engine efficiency of new vehicles have all likely contributed to overall declines in vehicle-related pollution, including VOCs.

The improvement in this one measure of air quality in Los Angeles may not surprise many longtime residents, Warneke said. People who lived in the city in the 1960s often couldn’t see nearby mountains through the smog; today, they often can.

For the new study, Warneke and his colleagues evaluated Los Angeles air quality measurements from three sources: NOAA-led research campaigns in 2002 and 2010, which involved extensive aircraft sampling of the atmosphere; datasets from other intensive field campaigns reaching back five decades; and air quality measurements from the California Air Resources Board monitoring sites, which reach back two to three decades.

Overall, VOCs dropped by an average of 7.5 percent per year. “This is essentially the kind of change we would expect, and it is very good to find that it is actually taking place,” Warneke said.

A few specific VOCs, such as propane and ethane, did not drop as quickly. Those chemicals come from sources other than vehicles, such as the use and production of natural gas. Another recent study led by CIRES and NOAA researchers and published online August 4 in Geophysical Research Letters has shown that one VOC, ethanol, is increasing in the atmosphere, consistent with its increasing use in transportation fuels.

Warneke said that he would expect the decrease in emissions of VOCs by cars to continue in Los Angeles, given that engine efficiency continues to improve and older, more polluting vehicles drop out of the fleet of all vehicles on the road.

Carsten Warneke, CIRES, 303-497-3601, 
Karin Vergoth, CIRES, 303-497-5125,

Ethanol, now used commonly in U.S. transportation fuels, is turning up in urban air at more than six times the levels measured a decade ago, according to a new study led by scientists at the Cooperative Institute of Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and NOAA. The research team found no discernible impact of increased ethanol on air quality.

Ethanol produced from corn and other crops has been promoted as a renewable transportation fuel and gasoline sold today in the United States contains, on average, nearly 10 percent ethanol, compared with about 1.3 percent in 2000. Ethanol is now the most prevalent compound in the gasoline sold in the United States.

“Increasing the ethanol in fuels is leaving a clear signature in the atmosphere,” said Joost de Gouw, an atmospheric chemist with CIRES and NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, and lead author of the new paper, published online in Geophysical Research Letters earlier this month.

De Gouw and his colleagues made measurements of urban air during four air quality research campaigns between 2002 and 2010. While many aspects of urban air composition were similar between the four studies, ethanol stuck out: It was six times higher in 2010, reflecting the increased use of fuel ethanol. Ethanol in the atmosphere is not easy to measure, and this study is the first to track its trends over time.

Ethanol is not considered an air toxic, but the Environmental Protection Agency does consider one of its byproducts, acetaldehyde, a hazardous air pollutant. And acetaldehyde can react in the atmosphere to form ground-level ozone, which is also regulated because of its health effects.

Previous research had suggested that the increased use of ethanol in fuel could increase acetaldehyde and ozone pollution. By contrast, de Gouw and colleagues found that acetaldehyde levels dropped in Los Angeles between 2002 and 2010, despite steady increases in ethanol use. Acetaldehyde can be formed from many different compounds in the atmosphere, de Gouw said, “and most of those compounds have gone down in the atmosphere over the last decade, because of cleaner vehicles.”

“This was a surprise,” de Gouw said. “When we looked at acetaldehyde, we expected to see an increase because ethanol had become ubiquitous. We found no evidence for this detrimental effect on air quality.”

To watch a video about this study click here [David to provide final link - please remove this text]

Joost de Gouw, CIRES, 303-497-3878,
Karin Vergoth, CIRES, 303-497-5125,

First direct evidence of specific heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles

When the Fourmile Canyon fire erupted west of Boulder, Colo. in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including the site of the David Skaggs Research Center, which houses scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and NOAA.

Within 24 hours, a few researchers immediately opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles.

"For the first time we were able to measure these warming effects minute-by-minute as the fire progressed,” said CIRES scientist Dan Lack, lead author of the study published late August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers were also able to record a phenomenon called the “lensing effect,” in which oils from the fire coat the soot particles and create a lens, causing them to absorb more of the sun’s radiation and heat up the surrounding air. This can change the “radiative balance” in an area, sometimes leading to greater warming of the air and cooling of the surface. While scientists had previously predicted such an effect and demonstrated it in laboratory experiments, the Boulder researchers were one of the first to directly measure the effect during an actual wildfire. Lack and his colleagues found that lensing increased the warming effect of soot (“black carbon” to scientists) by 50-70 percent. “When the fire erupted on Labor Day, so many researchers came in to work to turn on instruments and start sampling that we practically had traffic jams on the road into the lab,” Lack said. “I think we all realized that although this was an unfortunate event, it might be the best opportunity to collect some unique data. It turned out to be the best dataset, perfectly suited to the new instrument we had developed.”

The instruments called spectrophotometers can capture exquisite detail about all particles in the air, including characteristics that might affect the smoke particles’ tendency to absorb sunlight and warm their surroundings. While researchers know that overall, wildfire smoke can cause this lensing effect the details have been difficult to quantify, in part because of sparse observations of particles from real-world fires.

Once the researchers began studying the data they collected during the fire, it became obvious that the soot from the wildfire was different in several key ways from soot produced by other sources—diesel engines, for example.

"When vegetation burns, it is not as efficient as a diesel engine, and that means some of the burning vegetation ends up as oils,” Lack said. In the smoke plume, those oils coated soot particles, and that microscopic sheen acted like a magnifying glass, focusing more light onto the soot particles and magnifying warming of the surrounding air.

The researchers also discovered that the oils coating the soot were brown, and that dark coloration allowed further absorption of light, and therefore further warming of the atmosphere around the smoke plume.

The additional warming effects mean greater heating of the atmosphere enveloped in dark smoke from a wildfire fire, and understanding that heating effect is important for understanding climate change, Lack said. It’s also important on shorter timescales, and close in: that extra heating can change the “thermal structure” of the air above and downwind of a forest fire. Such changes can affect cloud formation, turbulence in the air, winds and even rainfall.

The discovery was made possible by state-of-the-art instrumentation developed by CIRES, NOAA, and other scientists, specifically a cavity ring down spectrometer and a photo-acoustic aerosol absorption spectrometer, Lack said. Those instruments could capture fine-scale details about particles sent airborne by the fire, including their composition, shape, size, color and ability to absorb and reflect sunlight of various wavelengths. 
“With such well directed measurements, we can look at the warming effects of soot, the magnifying coating and the brown oils and see a much clearer, yet still smoky picture of the effect of forest fires on climate," Lack said.

Dan Lack, CIRES, 303-497-5824, 
Karin Vergoth, CIRES, 303-497-5125,

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has selected the University of Colorado Boulder to continue a federal/academic partnership that extends NOAA’s ability to study climate change, improve weather models and better predict how solar storms can disrupt communication and navigation technologies.

The selection means that NOAA will continue funding the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, for at least five years and up to 10 more years. CIRES was established at CU Boulder in 1967.

The amount of the award is contingent on the availability of funding in the federal budget, but NOAA anticipates that up to $32 million may be available annually. Total NOAA funding is variable from year to year and is based on the number of projects the university proposes and NOAA approves.

Following a competitive process, NOAA selected CU Boulder to administer the CIRES partnership which leverages university resources to expand understanding of the “Earth system” -- the interrelationships among the atmosphere, oceans, land, living things and the sun’s energy.

“Improving our understanding of the Earth system is critically important as the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is forcing changes in all of its processes,” said Robert Detrick, assistant administrator of the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and chairman of the NOAA Research Council. “The University of Colorado has been an excellent partner to NOAA in pursuing this mission.”

NOAA’s first cooperative institute, CIRES is marking its 45th anniversary this year and is now one of 18 NOAA cooperative institutes nationwide. NOAA competitively funds cooperative institutes at universities with strong research programs relevant to NOAA’s mission. These institutes provide resources and opportunities that extend beyond the agency’s own research capacity.

“Partnership in environmental research with the NOAA Boulder laboratories is the keystone of CIRES research,” said CIRES Interim Director William Lewis Jr. “We have great ambitions in joint research with NOAA over the next five years.”

The partnership allows researchers at CU Boulder to receive support for research projects that may involve NOAA scientists, primarily at the Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder as well as other NOAA cooperative institutes.

The CIRES partnership will focus on nine research themes:

  • Air quality in a changing environment
  • Climate forcing feedbacks and analysis
  • Earth systems dynamics, variability and change
  • Management and exploitation of geophysical data
  • Regional science and applications
  • Scientific outreach and education
  • Space weather understanding and predictability
  • Stratospheric processes and trends
  • Systems and prediction models development

“With pressing issues like air quality, climate change and space weather now at the forefront globally, the University of Colorado Boulder is eager to continue this crucial partnership with NOAA,” said CU Boulder Vice Chancellor for Research Stein Sture. “CIRES is known around the world for advancing our understanding of the complex Earth system and as a premier institution in educating the next generation of environmental scientists.”

NOAA supports cooperative institutes to conduct research, education, training and outreach aligned with its mission. Cooperative institutes also promote the involvement of students and postdoctoral scientists in NOAA-funded research. This unique setting provides NOAA the benefit of working with the complementary capabilities of a research institution that contribute to NOAA-related sciences ranging from satellite climatology and fisheries biology to atmospheric chemistry and coastal ecology.

For more information on CIRES visit For more information on NOAA Cooperative Institutes visit

William Lewis Jr., 303-492-6378
Stein Sture, 303-492-2890
Karin Vergoth, 303-497-5125

A team of scientists from CIRES and NOAA will receive the governor of Colorado's Award for High-Impact Research, for discoveries made during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis.

In April 2010, an explosion and subsequent fire destroyed the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit, and vast amounts of crude oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Two thousand miles away, researchers from the NOAA’s Boulder, Colo.-based Earth System Research Laboratory Chemical Sciences Division and CIRES were hard at work at a field project in California. The team was using a NOAA research airplane outfitted as a “flying chemical laboratory” to investigate climate and air quality issues in the state.

Quick thinking and a lot of cooperation would lead to a convergence of the two situations. As the oil spill crisis continued, the scientists interrupted their California work to go to the Gulf, where they made atmospheric measurements of many different kinds of gases and particles in the air near the spill and the surrounding area. Those measurements answered urgent questions about the air quality in the Gulf region — and even about the oil spill itself. Later this month, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will recognize this work of the NOAA/CIRES Deepwater Horizon Atmospheric Science Team — 34 researchers in all — with the Governor’s Award for High-Impact Research.

Air Quality Concerns: As the disaster unfolded, many concerns centered on the potential health impacts from exposure to airborne chemicals from the oil itself, as well as dispersants being used, the byproducts of the controlled burns, and the atmospheric degradation of all the contaminants. Some of the earliest measurements at the scene had revealed toxic organic compounds in air samples collected in the vicinity of the oil slick, lending a sense of urgency and highlighting the need to bring new capabilities to bear in assessing the risks. The team measured a wide array of organic and other pollutants in the Gulf air — more air pollutants, at more sensitive levels, and over a broader region than covered by any other efforts in the Gulf. Combining the measurements and air quality models, the team assessed how the pollution was being transformed and transported to a broader region. The Colorado-based team coordinated with other agencies on the scene (the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), sharing data, comparing analyses, and using the other agencies’ complementary measurements. Within 24 hours of their first flight, the team relayed the news that the levels of toxics and other air pollutants were within acceptable limits for workers and the public downwind. Within about a month, the team had conducted the Gulf measurements, issued a more comprehensive preliminary report of findings, and even returned to California to complete their original mission—a phenomenal and exhausting round-the-clock effort of collecting and processing the data.

A Surprising and Invaluable New Technique: In addition to the air quality-related findings, the efforts yielded an unexpected new technique to address other urgent questions arising from the oil spill (How much oil was leaking? Where was it going?). In the early days of the disaster, uncertainties about these questions made it hard for the responders to assess potential impacts and develop appropriate response plans.

The leak was among the largest ever recorded and was especially challenging because the point of release was in the deep ocean, about a mile beneath the sea surface. The team showed that measurements they were making in the air –hundreds of feet above the site of the oil spill—could be used to estimate the rate of the oil leak deep below the ocean surface. Hydrocarbons in the air from the evaporating oil gave the telltale signature of the oil leak below.

Scientists estimated the leak rate by combining the airborne hydrocarbon measurements with data on the chemical makeup of the leaking gas and oil. The estimate did not differ greatly from the estimates that had been made using other approaches, such as underwater footage of the leaking pipe. The atmospheric hydrocarbon patterns also enabled the researchers to estimate where the gas and oil was going in the environment (the chemicals that dissolved; those that evaporated; the ones that remained undissolved).

This novel work gives an entirely new, and independent, way to assess oil spills from airborne platforms — an approach that could be valuable for future oil spills, especially those in remote, hard-to-access regions or in the very deep ocean. In fact, the technique has already been successfully applied to assess another oil spill, in the North Sea in March 2012.

The NOAA and CIRES research team will receive the Governor’s Award on Oct. 25 in a ceremony at the University of Colorado. But the story is far from finished, as the researchers continue to mine the very rich data set from their mission to the Gulf, and scientists and emergency planners from the United States and other countries consider using this powerful new approach to assess future oil spills. 

Karin Vergoth, CIRES, 303-497-5125,

Polynyas—expanses of open water in the Antarctic Ocean surrounded by ice or land—might not spur the interest of polar bears, penguins or even most people but en masse they do have the capacity to impact atmospheric and climatic conditions in the southern polar region.

To investigate these impacts CIRES Fellow John Cassano and a team of researchers visited Antarctica for the tenth time this August—a highly successful trip which shed more light on the formation and consequences of the Terra Nova Bay and Ross Sea polynyas. 

During the Antarctic winter cold air from the interior of the continent blows out over Terra Nova Bay and when sea ice is present the sea ice acts like a blanket over the ocean stopping the overlying cold, dry air from removing ocean heat and moisture. If the winds blowing off of the continent are strong enough however, the sea ice near the coast gets blown out to sea leaving an area of open water right along the coast creating the Terra Nova Bay polynya.

The researchers used unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to make detailed observations of the air-sea interactions in the Terra Nova Bay polynya, which is surrounded by a combination of sea ice and land. Digital cameras mounted on the Aerosonde unmanned aircraft vehicles took photos of the ice and ocean as the UAVs flew at heights as low as 300feet above the surface of the ocean. 

Near the end of their expedition the scientists flew over the Ross Sea polynya, just east of Ross Island. With this flight the scientists collected the first 3-dimensional atmospheric data of a major Antarctic weather pattern known as the Ross Ice Shelf airstream.

To view the photos taken by the UAVs click here.
To find out more about the expedition click here.

While Sandy swept across the North East, CIRES Fellow Stan Benjamin and CIRES scientist Curtis Alexander compare and contrast the “Superstorm’s” path with the output of the Flow-following finite-volume Icosahedral Model (FIM). This is the same model that has been involved in the experimental forecasting for NOAA’s Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Project.

“The FIM model has been used in the last week for forecasting Sandy,” said Benjamin, a CIRES Fellow and research meteorologist. “Although at this stage the model is experimental and doesn’t supplant existing models, it is bringing more accurate guidance to assist with NOAA operational hurricane forecasting.”

Benjamin and Alexander are just two of a team of CIRES scientists who work in the Global Systems Division (GSD) of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL).  The GSD researchers develop a range of information systems including models to predict short-range, high impact weather events as well as those to provide longer-term medium-range weather guidance and in the near future, intraseasonal forecasts.

In addition to FIM, members of GSD have also developed a real-time experimental hourly updated High-Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) model which predicts the hour-by-hour movements of both small and large scale storms across the lower 48 U.S.  This model has also been used to track Sandy in the last 36 hours. “It gets used to provide more accurate guidance for weather hazards of any kind within the next 15 hours,” Benjamin said.

Even in its experimental stage, the HRRR model provides some guidance especially regarding severe thunderstorms for the National Weather Service, Benjamin said. The model is also used to inform FAA air traffic control systems and to provide weather predictions for the Department of Energy’s renewable energy projects. 

“Ultimately we improve the ability of NOAA to serve society and the economy by providing better environmental information and a greater understanding of what takes place in the earth’s system and atmosphere,” Benjamin said.

GSD is able to take advantage of a lot of the pure research that is done in NOAA in developing its models, Benjamin said.  The synergy between the different groups within and outside NOAA allows the new models to be even more powerful and potentially accurate, he said.

“We are demonstrating that these more accurate next-generation weather models are not too far off from further improving NOAA’s everyday forecasts,” Benjamin said. 

Additional CIRES scientists involved in these projects are Patrick Hofmann, Ming Hu, Eric James, William Moninger, Joseph Olsen, Steven Peckham, Tanya Smirnova and Zue Wei.