Nov 27, 2007

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

From the first oceanic microbial stirrings to the latest in anti-microbial soaps, from the first flint (mustk) fre to the current climate crisis, life on earth is always been a struggle for sustenance versus sustainability, survival versus survivability.

One thing that has made to human life form successful in determining its fate has been our unparalleled ability to out-think our circumstance to find ways to adapt and overcome obstacles. Nowhere is this ability better exhibited then on our scientific accomplishments.

The next hour of programming, well, not representative of the University of California at Davis, the campus radio station or its sponsors – is representative of our current efforts to elude the uncertainty of chance and ignorance and forge a future based on a brilliance of our mental evolution.

Just by listening, you are increasing your chances of survival on the planet by continuing your own brilliant mental evolution with This Week In Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning Justin. How was your turkey weekend?

Justin: Wow! I’m pretty sure we did a story that said the pain isn’t actually responsible for making you sleepy at the Thanks Giving meal.

Kirsten: Yes. It’s pretty much not. We cover the story every year.

Justin: I’m telling you though…

Kirsten: And people consistently blame the turkey.

Justin: I don’t know what else to blame it on because I was in the food coma right after eating that I’ve never experienced before, like I couldn’t even get them a quarter of the way open. I was lying on a coach — my friend’s house – just completely…

Kirsten: Just comatose, just out for the count, down and out.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Yes. Well, I actually have some information on that right here. How much did you eat?

Justin: I had two helpings and I’d like, you know…

Kirsten: Two helpings of everything?

Justin: Yes, mostly turkey.

Kirsten: Okay. But there are a lot of carbohydrates that go along with…

Justin: Mashed potatoes, yes. How I love the mashed potatoes.

Kirsten: Mashed potatoes, they’re starches containing, the sugars, carbohydrate. There is also the dessert issue. Did you have any dessert?

Justin: I couldn’t even get to dessert.

Kirsten: Well, what ends up happening is – so turkey does contain tryptophan, that is the truth. It’s one of the 20 amino acids. It’s an essential amino acid which means that our body does not create it and that we have to get it from our diet. And meats are one of the main sources of tryptophan.

We have a call already? Don’t this people want to let me get through with this little story?

Justin: Yes, they’re waiting, they’re on with our call strainer, which is the ring tone.

Kirsten: They’ll wait. You can wait, just a few moments. Okay.

So, they have to compete with each other to get through the blood-brain barrier. Within the blood-brain barrier, proteins – or not proteins – amino acids are actually large enough that they can’t just pass right through. They have to be shuttled through by transporters.

And so, well, they kind of all have to line up, right? One after the other. And since tryptophan is one of the amino acids in the least quantity in turkey, the likelihood of it getting through and having an effect in the brain is very little compared to the other amino acids.

So, from the turkey, the tryptophan doesn’t necessarily have an effect. However, carbohydrates, because they increase the amount of the release of insulin in the blood that saps up glucose and other things, it kind of paves the way for tryptophan to get into the brain by opening up some transporters.

Okay? So, the brain ends up – the tryptophan does get it, end up getting through, it’s not necessarily from the turkey, not per se, it’s the effect of the massive amounts of carbohydrates that you’re eating that allows the tryptophan to get through in the first place, there it increases the amount of serotonin, the happy, good feeling hormone in the brain.

Justin: It was a good feeling. There was a good, good feeling.

Kirsten: That also is supposed to maybe make you a little tired, induced drowsiness.

Justin: Yes. Wow! Coma, I was in a coma.

Kirsten: It also increases production of melatonin as well, just related to sleep cycles. What’s another thing? Yes, so the tryptophan leads to serotonin and melatonin. It’s the turkey that maybe has the majority of the tryptophan in it in the first place but it’s the carbohydrates that lead to it actually.

Justin: So, if I just ate…

Kirsten: If you just ate turkey…

Justin: It wouldn’t happen.

Kirsten: Not necessarily, unless you ate a lot because there’s also the effect of the “fight or flight”, rest and digest system. So, when your body is tuned to use up energy and to flee from a predator, you’re going to be, shutting down digestion. All the blood is going to your muscles and your brain. You’re going to be more alert. It’s going to keep you wake.

However, the opposite rest and digest, which is when you fill your belly full of food, the blood from your body gets redirected from the muscles, from the brain to your bellies. So, there’s less blood going to your brain, more going to your belly to help with digestion and the absorption of…

Justin: I’ve experienced that after a big meal but nothing, nothing like a coma.

Kirsten: Yes, nothing compares.

Justin: I couldn’t stand. No, I was really like…

Kirsten: Any alcohol?

Justin: I was getting heat for not helping like clean up and stuff. And I’m like, “Just give me. I just – I’m not even – leave it for me.” I can’t move.

Kirsten: Oh dear. Yes.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: There’s also the alcohol effect. And many people do imbibe alcohol over – along with their dinner, their holiday meals. And that can have a huge effect as well, making you sleepy.

So, turkey does contain tryptophan. But it doesn’t get into the brain as much – enough to cause drowsiness as it would…

Justin: By itself.

Kirsten: …by itself unless you ate those mashed potatoes, that dessert.

Justin: And that’s just a staple with every Thanks Giving is these mashed potatoes (unintelligible).

Kirsten: Stuffing.

Justin: Yes. Oh, I love the stuffing too. That’s all I put on my plate – stuffing, mashed potatoes and turkey.

Kirsten: There you go.

Justin: People make out of their stuff on that. I’m like it doesn’t belong on the plate. That’s for tomorrow. That’s for breakfast.

Kirsten: Stuff in turkey and cranberry sauced sandwiches.

Justin: That’s a good stuff.

Kirsten: Yummy. What’s up on your plate?

Justin: Deep space telescope discovers something unexpected while searching for quantum bits of potential dark matter thousands of light years from Earth.

Kirsten: Quantum bits of potential dark matter, that’s just – what?

Justin: You know what this telescope found?

Kirsten: What?

Justin: Jellyfish and luminescent bacteria in the deep darkest space, well, almost. And a fantastic influence of events, a large undersea neutrino detection array had shed light or rather observed light emitting from places where it should not, at least where it wasn’t expected to be.

The Antares telescope is series of 1,000 foot tall cables, mounted on the sea bed with light detecting sensors that when complete, will span 6,000 sq. miles of Mediterranean sea floor is designed to capture glimpses of light produced by Muons that result when a neutrino passes through the Earth. So, it’s kind of looking for them coming up from the bottom of the Earth.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, instead of, use the Earth sort of like a big interactive filter.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Early test of the undersea scopes photomultipliers picked up both a strong spike of light, as well as a defused light that came in waves that lasted for anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks.

Due to the illusive nature of the neutrino, University of the Mediterranean Scientist quickly realized that something in the sea itself must be the cause of the illuminations.

Enter marine biologist Christian (Camberini), who quickly surmise that the light waves could be the result of bioluminescent bacteria. Surprising because they were not thought to be able to give off such luminescence at the depths detected due to the high pressure.

Wow, because this is like down – I think, the bottom of this is lower than most submarines can even go without getting crashed.

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: So, it’s kind of – yes, they were surprised to even see this. And then the spikes of light recordable likely from passing luminous fish, jelly fish or shrimp.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Now the detector arrays were being out-fitted with additional biological, chemical and ocean current sensors to better understand track the sea floor and also in terms of global warming because I guess from the very beginning, when they started doing these arrays, when they start installing them, until now, they’ve also found the luminescence is less. That’s what they’re trying to figure out if that’s a trend, if it’s a temperature thing and, you know.

But this is a huge multi-million dollar experiment that was for Physics. And the marine biologists, I guess, at the University of the Mediterranean weren’t getting that kind of funding.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And now, they’ve got like this great, huge project that they can…

Kirsten: They’re totally piggybacking, yes.

Justin: Exactly, yes.

Kirsten: That’s awesome.

Justin: The detector has even been tweaked in such ways to be able to track whales and dolphins in the area. That’s really cool.

Kirsten: I think that’s a great story.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: We have an interview at the top – I guess the top of our hour at nine o’clock.

Justin: Top of the second half hour.

Kirsten: The top of the second half hour, yes, with a couple of researchers from NASA who have written a book on using satellites to map our changing planet. And so, we’re going be talking with them about satellites and the satellite technology that’s not used to track the deep dark ocean but the surface of our planet and our atmosphere.

So, we should be able to find out a lot more neat information about what satellites are getting for us, in just about 20 minutes. That’s exciting.

And along those lines, it was a story sent to me by Ed Dire who is my wonderfully consistent correspondent. This article appeared in nature website. It was written by (Zooey Corban), a freelance writer.

The story however is related to satellite tracking. We’ve been using satellites since the 70’s to look at Arctic Sea Ice. And in 1998, there was an opening in the sea ice. And again this year, the Northwest Passage in the Arctic is coming open.

Justin: Smooth sailing.

Kirsten: Yes. Opening up, wide up and there’s some people who are really excited that, “Hey, this is going to be new easy shipping routes. We’re won’t have to necessarily use the Panama, go all the way around the Panama canal which is, tens of thousands of miles away.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: We can just go hop on over Canada – from one side of Canada to the other. Fantastic, right?

Justin: From Alaska to New York shipping route. What?

Kirsten: Huh? Exactly. Well, one of the downsides to this is that there’s been an annual plankton survey that’s been going on. The Sir Allister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, SAHFOS, in the U.K. has been leading the survey. And it’s been looking at plankton – phytoplankton in the Atlantic.

What they found is a pacific species called, neodenticula seminae in the Atlantic. Where did it come from?

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: Well, it could have come from the ballast of ships and that’s one thing that the researchers have thought about. But they pretty much think that it’s highly unlikely for it to have come from shipping water ballast that the ships that would have done through – ice breaking ships that would have gone through the Arctic waters and ice passages – that they would have been unlikely to change their ballast water in such extreme conditions in those places where it would have been found and not import.

So, they’ve got this new or it’s new but new to the Arctic species of phytoplankton that’s migrated over. And they think that it made its way through based on west to east winds and currents that pushed them through.

Justin: Undersea rivers.

Kirsten: Yes. Not just on the surface that…

Justin: On the surface?

Kirsten: …since the ice came open, these are phytoplankton that they depend on photosynthesis to incorporate carbon dioxide into them and to create their mass. And in doing that, they have to stay at the surface of the ocean.

So, they’re normally blocked by ice. But when the ice melted and there’s a passage open…

Justin: Smooth sailing for them.

Kirsten: Smooth sailing. Yes. And this happens – they think that in 1998 is when the neodenticula slipped through and now, they’re finding it in much larger numbers.

And actually, in an area in Canada, it’s actually gone into a bloom that they think that the low salinity in the area – this one particular port area of Canada has allowed it to thrive.

Justin: Silver lining in global warming for one particular phytoplankton.

Kirsten: Yes, for the phytoplankton. The question however is, okay, this one species has not been over to the Atlantic. They have been looking at fossil records and they believe that these species of phytoplankton has not been in the Atlantic for over 800,000 years.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: It’s like 1.2 to 800,000 years is the period when it was last seen in the fossil record in the Atlantic side of things. And that’s during another interglacial period such as today. But they think…

Justin: Wait a minute, interglacial period.

Kirsten: Yes. And the question is, now that the species is coming over, how is it going to interact with the other species? There is evidence that when species come over, sometimes they completely take over and out-compete other species.

There’s one species called Coscinodiscus wailesii, which invaded the North Sea from the Indian and Pacific Oceans that it displaced all of the normal indigenous species that are found there.

But the species that are higher up the food chain that normally eat the phytoplankton in that area, didn’t like to eat this new one that displaced all the old ones. So, therefore, it causes a complete – an effect…

Justin: Puts everything out of whack, yes.

Kirsten: Puts everything out of whack. The effect of displacing the normal phytoplankton for one that, they don’t like to eat, it’s going to have effects on abilities of these other animals to survive, reproduce, to be able to create higher biomass in those areas.

So, it could have very, very, large reproductions for these species Neodenticula to have come in the Arctic – I mean to the Atlantic. But that’s going to be much more, they’re going to do a lot more study to see whether or not it’s going to last, survive, thrive, how’s it’s going to actually do and what’s going to happen.

So, these are questions that as the changing world continues to change we’ll have to address and see how they’re going to deal with it.

Justin: Speaking of change.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: The change one – or I might be reading this wrong. Chang’e 1, the Chinese lunar probe vacationing around the moon has sent some (unintelligible) postcards home, high resolution, cratered landscapes of the moon.

One Chinese leader proclaimed, “The full success of our country’s first lunar exploration mission is helping to turn the Chinese nation’s 1,000 year old dream of reaching the moon a reality.”

Thousand years? Didn’t we like say, ten years from now, we’re going to do it and which is, up and do it. All, I’m saying.

State television the orbiter as it was broadcasting in the space, the East is red. They’re communist party’s old anthem to a rising China. Their evolutionary tune was also broadcast by Chinese’ first satellite in 1970.

China hopes to probe, launch last month, will have survey the entire surface of the moon at least once by early next year. The probe is launched, closely followed the start of similar mission by Japan and as well as India, who is also planning to launch a lunar probe in April.

I kind of understand. It’s like the moon is your first step to exploration but…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Do you really need to look at moon that many more times?

Kirsten: There’s a lot about the moon that we don’t really…

Justin: Like that we have like five nations with satellites taking pictures.

Kirsten: I think it’s great. And as long as they all share information with one another, it’s going to help us understand the moon even more. But if we’re not sharing information and these are just national secrets, “My satellite knows things that your satellite don’t know.”

And then, it’s going to take a lot longer to actually map the surface of the moon. Understand what is there, how much – if and how much water is there, whether or not, where there are descent places to potentially put a moon base.

Justin: They’re going to do the mineral.

Kirsten: These are important questions.

Justin: There certain minerals up on the moon that are very rare on Earth.

Kirsten: Yes. What about mining? Where are we going to put mines. Yes.

Justin: The mining rights is going to be – the next war is going to be over the moon. Guessing.

Kirsten: Yes. As we – our stepping stone to the heavens, yes.

Justin: “My moon.” “No, it’s mine. It follows me everywhere.”

Kirsten: Yes. It follows us all everywhere. Did a single migration occur across the bearing straight, leading to all the indigenous people in South America, Central America?

Justin: There are reasons I think, not. And it’s the Chapel Hill is one of them. Chapel Hill, I’ve seen – I don’t have the story in front of me. So, you should.

Kirsten: I’m like, what? I do not know what you are talking about, Chapel Hill. But I do know that at the University of Michigan, some researchers published a study online at PLoS, the Public Library of Science Genetics, analyzing gene’s genetic variation at 678 key markers in the DNA of 29 native American populations across all the Americas.

Justin: Interesting.

Kirsten: Yes. And they included two Siberian groups. They found that genetic diversity and similarity to the Siberian groups decreases the further a population is from the Bearing straight.

So, basically saying, that if they were all from single populations in Siberia that as they came across, time would have led them further and further away and over that time, they would have mutations and variations that would have made them slightly different from their origins.

Let’s see, this adds to archaeological and genetic evidence that the ancestors came by northwest route. A unique genetic variant is wide spread in native Americans across both American continents, suggesting that the first humans in the Americas came in a single migration or multiple waves from a single source but not from different sources.

So, that this particular variant is common among all these different populations. So, that’s suggesting that they’re all closely related.

So, they think that the variant occurred shortly prior to migration to the Americas or immediately afterwards that there is a single source and that’s why it would have come there.

The assistant professor of human genetics, Noah A. Rosenberg says, “We have a reasonably clear genetic evidence that the most likely can candidate for the source of native American population is somewhere in East Asia.” Somewhere. Somewhere, but where? Maybe, Siberia.

If there were a large number of migrations and most of the source groups didn’t have the variant, then we would not see the widespread presence of mutation in the Americas.

He has previously studied the same set of markers that are used in the new study in 50 populations around the world. And the pattern the research uncovered that the founding population move south from the bearing straight – that as the founding populations move south from the bearing straight, genetic diversity declined is what one would expect when migration is relatively recent, adding that there hasn’t been a lot of time for dramatic mutations to occur from the original gene pool.

Justin: Interesting.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: See, the puzzle there had been that the archaeological finds for the Americas. There’s the two spots where you find the oldest stuff, are the two spots that are like areas that are the furthest away from the migration…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …from that Siberian land bridge.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: So, that’s one of the things that kept the mystery sort of going about how did we actually get here? But if the genetic diversity matches the Siberian path that pretty much sounds like that might answer that question.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Next question, please. Do we have any more?

Kirsten: It makes you wonder though why would the furthest places have the oldest stuff.

Justin: Yes. There’s like – what is it here.

Kirsten: They came across and just went, “Run.”

Justin: I’ve got Monteverde in Chile has a flaked tools and stoned points that are approximately 15,000 years old versus North America, oh, it’s not capital, (cactucil), that’s what it is.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: They have small blades that they think might even be 20 to 17,000 years old. But that matched sort of tools that would have been around and used, they most resemble the flints and tools and spearheads and things, most resembled things of Southern Europe around that area.

So, like, there’s been all this weird curveballs. And then they’re supposedly being contested ancient foot prints in Mexico…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …that might even be 38,000 years old. But now, they’re saying, “Maybe not.” But yes, North America, the area closest, we’ve got a leg bone that’s like 13,000 years old. And that’s old.

And (Kenny Wakeman) or where do the – (what is it)? Ten thousand, something like that?

Kirsten: Yes. Well, I mean, it’s possible they do say that maybe it’s, a single source but multiple migrations from that one source. So, maybe there was one group that came through and settled just somewhere in North America and then a lot of groups came from that. Or maybe there is some place as long ago as 30,000 years ago that was over in Siberia that was the source that everyone came from. That’s what they’re saying.

So, it still could explain some of the archaeological evidence if they came over in multiple waves as opposed to just one single path of migration all the way down south, yes.

There you go. That’s interesting, yes?

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Yes. Where did people come from?

Justin: I don’t know. Where are they going?

Kirsten: Where are they going? Why do they go there?

Justin: What are we doing here, anyway?

Kirsten: It’s the human condition to migrate.

Justin: The human condition – this is a good example of the human condition, a story I’ve got here.

If the minimum wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be called the minimum. New research shows that people view their abilities in the workplace, how they view their abilities in the workplace impacts how they respond to success.

Pretty interesting story shows that people become anxious when the results of what they do don’t match their expectations, causes the most stress.

Kirsten: Mm hmm, mismatch

Justin: So, what they basically do is they give people an intelligence test and they gave them three intelligence tests actually. But the first one, they said, “Okay. Here’s how you did. Okay. So, we’re going to practice with you and then we’ll have you take it again.” And then, they would take it again and they would tell them that they did the same or improve or did worse — randomly.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And then, they would have them into a third intelligence test. Now, the folks who have a very fixed sense of themselves, who did just the same on the second as they did the first time actually did better on the third test. Whereas if they were told that they improved, they did worse.

Kirsten: So, maybe they stopped trying.

Justin: Exactly. These are people of who sort of believe that, I guess that have a very fixed impression of themselves. I might be sort of getting this one misconstrued.

Because there’s also these people who think that they are, okay yes, who believe that their self-identity is flexible, their abilities are flexible, that they can change and improve or that they might do bad or they might do good. But they think that they’re not as steady, right?

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And then, those folks when they were told that they did better on the second test, they did just normal on the third one because that have met their expectations.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: But if they were told they did worse, then they did much worse. Then people who try to fix, it’s just sort of this weird but they said it matched up along to people who they had vetted out as either believing their abilities to be fixed or that they were malleable.

Basically, what this is saying is that people who – even if the result is good, if you are one of the steady eddies, and you have this really great outcome with something you do that went beyond your own expectations, it creates stress. You begin to panic and self-sabotage yourself into doing worse the next time, sort of even things out.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Very odd. So, they’re thinking about coming out with this test that we can get people to change their…

Kirsten: Their perceptions of self, maybe.

Justin: Yes. And maybe improve performance. They want to use this for office work and make managers better. But still it’s, you know…

Kirsten: Yes. Helping with management, how to deal with malleable personalities.

Justin: I don’t know what mine is. I don’t know if – I think it must be the malleable like…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: … I actually believe I could be an astronaut. It’s just that I don’t want to.

Kirsten: Well, it’s different. That’s (unintelligible).

Justin: Is that delusional?

Kirsten: Yes. I think that delusional.

Justin: Or something else?

Kirsten: That’s something else entirely. Research published by a group in the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute have shown that a gene called – what is it called – PHR1 determines the ability of nerves to grow straight and through to their targets.

Researchers have been trying to figure out what signal is that actually guides motor neurons to their targets because sometimes the signal gets mixed up. Sometimes there are mutants that end up the nerves and the curly-cued and kinked and they just never quite make it to where they are supposed to go.

So, what is it that determines how they get there and where they go? Nerves, when they’re growing, they have at their tip a section called the growth cone which is, it has receptor molecules and it’s like in a shape of a cone. It’s very orderly and organized. And when it’s orderly and organized, it gets cues from the environment that it’s in and it travels appropriately. It travels to the place that it is supposed to go.

However, sometimes, there are mutant forms in which the gene itself actually causes the growth cone to be spread out along the front end of the nerve or along the axon itself so that the axon ends up trying to grow in different directions at the same time because their much larger region is not an orderly cone anymore. It’s like they stretched out along that the front end of the axon.

So, it’s like disorderly – there are receptors all over the place. And receptors on the side of the axon are going, “Hey, we should go over here.” And so, the axon tries to go that way. Yes.

So, it just confuses things. And it turns out that they are like a number of different mutations that can affect the growth of these nerves. But now they have to figure out what they can do to try and control gene PHR1 to allow it to maintain orderly growth in situations where growth is kind of messed up.

Justin: So, wait, what would this look like if my motor neurons are discombobulated?

Kirsten: If your motor neurons are discombobulated?

Justin: They’re going like, not be able to drink my coffee without spilling it in my eye or…

Kirsten: Right. If your motor neurons were not going to the correct locations, your nerve signals would not reach the muscles that they needed to reach.

So, say, you wanted to move your arm up and down, maybe the nerve instead of going to your shoulder joint, goes to your wrist joint. And so, you move your wrist up and down instead of your whole arm.

Or maybe, it just goes to like some section of small muscle fibers within your biceps or your bicep just starts twitching uncontrollably and spasmodically. Or, say it never even gets there at all and it gets confused and then the nerves don’t go anywhere and then…

Justin: Could that be like…

Kirsten: …during development, they would just die off because they don’t have anywhere to go.

Justin: Could that be like nervous text two like your brain accidentally firing off some sort of series of little motor neurons that are causing twitching and…?

Kirsten: Twitch, twitch. Yes. So, the question is how we can use this gene, the understanding of this gene and the knowledge that this gene is what actually controls the growth cone, that this is the signal that sends it along the way. They found that the gene in a fruit flies as well and C. Elegans. So, it’s conserved along many organisms.

So, it’s a very important gene and it seems to be throughout the body. So, this is something that is a consistent signal for muscle for motor nerve cells throughout the body. And if we can figure out how it works, maybe…

Justin: Keep me from my face twitching whenever there’s like a motor camera – film camera in front of me.

Kirsten: Or in the case of like neuro-degenerative diseases, maybe we can help it, use it, to teach nerves to re-grow again.

Justin: We’ll help them (second).

Kirsten: Or even in paralysis. So…

Justin: Because that always happen. I always get these weird facial twitches whenever there is a video camera…

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: …pointed at me. It’s like I get half…

Kirsten: You don’t need to know about this. I think we’re done for the half hour.

Justin: We’re going to come back with a second half hour, right after this break.

Kirsten: Right after this break. Stay tuned for more on KDVS.


Justin: And we’re back with more on This Week In Science. And Kirsten has not just got one now but two – count them two NASA scientists.

Kirsten: I know, we have two NASA scientists on the phone. Dr. Michael D. King is an atmospheric science at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Claire Parkinson is a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as well. Without further ado, let’s bring them on the line.

Justin: Welcome to This Week In Science.

Michael: Welcome. This is Michael King.

Kirsten: Hi! And Claire, are you there as well?

Claire: Yes, I am. Hi!

Kirsten: Wonderful. It’s great to have you both on the phone today. It’s been fun trying to figure out a method to get both of you on the phone at the same time. Thank goodness for conference calls.

So, you have both edited a text called, “Our Changing Planet: The View from Space.” Dr. King, could you tell us a little bit about where the idea for this book came from?

Michael: I wouldn’t describe it as a textbook. It’s more of a coffee table book for the general public and to our science colleagues describing what you can see from space and how the planet is changing.

The idea actually originated with Robin Williams, one of the co-editors on the book who worked for me at that time. And he had the idea that there some spectacular data and now available on the Earth and we had quite a few observations for enough years that we ought to be able to document and do a compelling book for the public at large on how the planet is changing and what has been observed from space.

Justin: It really does…

Michael: So, Robin actually brought the idea to me at that time.

Justin: It really does make climate change look beautiful because these photos are stunning.

Kirsten: Yes. These images of so many different aspects of our atmosphere on the surface of our planet are really astounding. Could you tell us what different aspects of the planet are covered in this book through satellite study? What have we’ve been able to envision through satellites in the last 30 years, 40 years?

Michael: So, long, likely and basically, in this particular book, we’ve used many NASA satellites but not exclusively NASA satellites. We’ve used 48 different satellites from NOAA, from NASA, from Japan, from Europe that had been in space for almost 40 years. It going depends on which satellite and which technology.

The book covers sections organized in terms of the properties of the atmosphere. You can see from space hemisphere, chemistry, clouds, dust, some of the riches of the world, you can see from space which I can describe later.

Kirsten: That would be interesting.

Michael: There’s a section on the land, land cover, land use change, deforestation, changes in agricultural practices, farming or the length of the growing season. There are sections on ocean properties. So, how high or low the ocean is. And it’s not one level and how sea level is rising and how it is rising different amount, different places in the world.

You can see aspects of what you call teleconnection, how natural dust in Africa contributes to red tide, harmful algal blooms in Florida. It’s a long range transport.

There’s section on the ice specialty of Dr. Parkinson on polar regions and their glacial retreat, sea ice which is actually had been declining quite a bit in the Arctic, not so much on the Antarctic. There’s a lot of stuff on Arctic and polar regions and snow.

And final large section is on the evidence of our tenure, things that man has clearly done either urbanization or shrinking of the Aral Sea or draining of the Iraqi marshes in the Mesopotamia region.

Kirsten: Right.

Michael: So, it covers — I’m not sure what it is Claire — 60 or so different individual, maybe four or five page contributions on a particular topic.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: It’s kind of like using one of those satellite maps if you’ve ever done that to look at your house from space.

Michael: Yes.

Justin: And as you look at your like, “Oh, wait, this is an old photograph, that tree was cut down three years ago and that neighbor didn’t buy that car until after this,” except it’s for the whole planet not just your block.

Michael: That’s right. Yes, Goggle Earth makes that possible for anybody to look at. And then, we’ll say, when it’s not the right image of this week, with different season or different time.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: It just update though, eventually because I noticed there have been changes from the first time I’ve checked those satellite maps until current. They have updated for my neighborhood even though I don’t think it hasn’t quite caught up to me and my new place.

Kirsten: One thing that does strike me in the book is just that the way that we can notice really what an effect humans are having on the planet and not just the natural cycles of things around us but what we’ve built, what we’ve taken out, what we’ve done in the last 30 or 40 years.

Michael: It’s just quite evident. And that’s evident in parts because this population changes and the non-uniform distribution of urban development in your coast lines and things. So, there’s much more impact, say, some of storms like hurricanes but not necessarily because the frequency is higher is because we have a lot build up in vulnerable areas.

Kirsten: Yes.

Michael: So, this can be observed, has been observed from space. A lot of thing is you wouldn’t think of – a lot of this imagery is from visible or night visual camera or imagery that can be put together. But many things are in the microwave, the eye can’t see, attracting (LCI) solar polar darkness. You can see what’s going on.

Sometimes, we use radars or active systems from space to penetrate inside of clouds like, hurricane Katrina.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Michael: So, there are a various technologies that have been applied to observing the planet. Not just what the eye would see if you were an astronaut flying with a camera.

Kirsten: Right. Now, Claire, your work specifically – since you’ve been at NASA has been looking at ice and the Arctic and the Antarctic, can you tell us a little bit about what satellites you use specifically and how you use them to track what the changes that are taking place?

Claire: Yes. I use test of microwave data and the satellites, the Nimbus 5 Satellite, the Nimbus 7 Satellite and those are both NASA satellites. But then, I also use the SENS Meteorological Satellite Program F-8, F-13 and F-11 satellites and those are from the Department of Defense.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Claire: And then, most recently, the Aqua satellite which is launched in 2002, I used that one. And basically, I use Microwave data for partly reason that Michael was just alluding to, which is that Microwave data doesn’t require sunlight. So, therefore you can get your data whether it’s dark out or whether it’s light out.

And it also pretty much can go through cloud cover so that for most clouds will not cause a problem with getting data for the surface and that’s so different versus what the eye can see.

If the eye is up above the clouds and looks down, the clouds are going definitely complicate what you can see at the surface. But with the Microwave data, you can see the surface despite having clouds in the way.

So, those are two huge advantages to using the Microwave, the fact that you can get your surface data in the presence of clouds and the fact that you can get it either in daylight or in darkness which in the polar regions, the darkness last four months at a time.

So, we use microwave data extensively for the polar region. And what we found is that in the Arctic case, there’s been a very substantial amount of sea ice decrease overall in the past three decades, whereas that has not been the case in the Antarctic.

Kirsten: Yes.

Claire: And the Arctic case correlates really well with the fact that temperature have also been increasing in the Arctic. So, it’s main part of the global warming discussion these days is what’s going on in the Arctic which has been…

Kirsten: Yes. Is there any evidence from what you’re working on as to why, you know – aside from what factors might be leading to the increases in temperature in the north as opposed to the south or why specifically the Arctic and not the Antarctic in terms of the decrease in ice?

Claire: Well, we’re really not entirely sure. But it does correspond well with the temperature. So that in the Arctic the temperatures have been increasing and the sea ice has been decreasing. In the Antarctic, it kind of got a spatial component in terms of…

Kirsten: Okay.

Claire: …in the Antarctic – there’s one region of the Antarctic, it’s called the Antarctic Peninsula region which is where major peninsula jots up towards South America.

That peninsula has had a considerable amount of warming. And in that region of the Antarctic, the sea ice has been decreasing whereas the rest of the Antarctica, it tends more to be increasing and to have the temperatures more either stable or cooling.

So, the sea ice is corresponding well with the temperatures. But as for why the temperatures in the Antarctic haven’t warmed as much as the temperatures in the Arctic that’s one of the remaining question marks.

Kirsten: Right. So, one thing I’ve also heard of recently is the threat to the national satellite system that funding with NASA is not going to be replacing satellites as they aged, that several satellites are going to be coming out of use within the next 10 to 15 years.

Justin: Does this mean that the satellites that we have are about to put out are just much more efficient can do more things or does it mean we’re actually going to be losing…

Kirsten: Losing coverage and our ability to know what’s happening to our planet, can either of you answer that?

Michael: Well, try to answer that delicately.

Kirsten: Yes.

Michael: There are about 18 satellites NASA has in orbit or maybe now 16. Many of them are extraordinarily capable but they weren’t launched quite a while ago, most satellites are designed for a planned six year or so, five or six year orbit lifetime.

Fortunately, because the engineering is so good and there are a lot of redundancies, many of our satellites have lasted much beyond their designed life.

Kirsten: Yes. That’s great.

Michael: Tomorrow I think – I mean today, is the ten year anniversary of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission that was built at Goddard and launched with Japan – partnership with Japan that exceeded its three years design life by seven years and it’s still operating very well.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Yes. If Detroit made cars like NASA made probes. Well, they’d be out of business because nobody needs to buy a car again.

Michael: I think that’s part of what’s going on is they had hope that the satellites keep lasting longer and there hasn’t been enough money to build some replacement satellite. And so, right now, several things are going on. But there has been general reduction in budget allocation to Earth science that’s such quite appreciable.

Secondly, there has been strategy to converge the NOAA and the Department of Defense operational Meteorological Satellite System for our weather so they’re not two separate systems.

And so, NASA has been partnering by helping this integrated program office with new technology for new missions that would be operating by this other entity and not by NASA fortunately that program is way behind budget and is technologically challenged.

And so, their big, big delays in any of the potentially successful missions.

Kirsten: Right.

Michael: So, there is likely to be a gap in capability.

Kirsten: Which comes at quite a crucial point in time in terms of our needs.

Michael: NASA is not all in isolation.

Kirsten: Right.

Michael: There’s also are capabilities. There are also aging in Europe. European Space Agency has a satellite, (MB) satellite which is pretty capable but it’s also now getting past its prime mission.

So, we’re not the only agency or country with some of the struggle.

Kirsten: Right.

Michael: But there are tremendous capabilities on orbit today which we took advantage of in developing this book. But it is highly likely that there will be a reduction capability in the near term before things get…

Kirsten: Yes.

Michael: …when technology gets built and launch.

Kirsten: Yes. This book – I mean, it seems – it’s just beautiful. You can’t convey how amazing the images and are in this book over the radio unfortunately.

Is there anything for you – I guess, Michael first and Claire, second – for putting together the book and within your own research using satellite data to look at the planet, is there anything just striking that just really hit you as just the most beautiful, amazing thing that you’ve seen?

Michael: I’ve been in business too long. I see amazing things daily. So, things that I’ve found particularly interesting and I would think the listeners would find interesting and I alluded to it earlier was one chapter on seeing riches of the world from space.

Kirsten: Yup.

Michael: And that is something wherein space technology is able to observe, a gas in the atmosphere, nitrogen dioxide in this case which the eye would not be able to see with a Microwave or visual light or camera. You would not be able to see that. But it has an infrared spectrum that is able to be picked up and that is ultraviolet spectrum.

And you can measure it from space. And it is associated with three things, automobile, traffic and human population in cities, coal-fired power plants and natural lightning.

So, if you look at annual average distribution of nitrogen dioxide, you see just like the urban city lights at night that’s widely shown now. You’d see the cities of the world, locations of the urban concentration.

Kirsten: Right.

Michael: But if you look at the distribution by day of the week, you’ll see that in the Asia, United States, Japan and Europe that the concentrations of emissions drops considerably on Sunday. It’s down to 50% or 60%. The level of this is during the middle of the week, during the work week.

Kirsten: Wow!

Michael: In Israel, it’s low on Saturday, the Sabbath of the Jewish religion. And the Islamic cities of the Middle East is well on Friday, which is the Muslim holy day. And so, you can see the human use of transportation industries is reflected in the atmospheric state, composition of the atmosphere.

China in everyday of the week, it’s the same. They got heavy nitrogen oxide, a lot of coal-fired power plants and there’s no day of the week signal.

Kirsten: Right.

Michael: It’s not their religion thing, it’s a cultural thing which takes too long to explain but you can see this. And that’s very vividly illustrated in this book. And it is something that would not be and what somebody would normally expect or know or you wouldn’t see from Goggle Earth or in imagery. But it is a dramatic illustration of man’s impact.

Kirsten: Right. You wouldn’t normally expect something to be that visible, that apparent from people’s activities. It’s fascinating.

Claire, is there anything that you find absolutely amazing?

Claire: Okay. I’m a climatologist and so, for me, I’ve loved over the past 30 years to be able to see the global picture. Something that prior to satellite, you just could not see.

And that’s true in very many, many different variables like for the ice, you can see the whole Arctic. You can see the whole Antarctic. And then for temperatures and precipitation and all sorts of variables you can get global pictures.

So, to me, that’s a really beautiful thing about this satellite data. The fact that you can see the global picture that allows so much. But if you’re thinking about specific pictures in this book, the book being Our Changing Planet: A View from Space – if you’re thinking about pictures in this book, one that’s kind of stunning is there’s a sequence of pictures on the Larsen Ice Shelf which is an ice shelf on the East Coast of the Antarctic Peninsula that crumbled back in January, February and March of 2002.

Kirsten: Yes.

Claire: And the amazing thing about that is – this ice shelf, this crumbling of this entire ice shelf is so visible from space. You see thousands of icebergs in this pictures that’s shown in the book.

This is an iceberg that’s thought to have been around in this location for the past approximately 10,000 years. And here it crumbled in just the course of about a two-month period. So, that’s kind of spectacular in terms of what went on there and how well it was captured by the satellite data.

But then, other pictures, like there’s a picture and her full page picture in here of San Francisco from space. And you can see all the buildings and you can identify the buildings and it’s kind of like this three dimensional picture in terms of seeing the heights of the buildings and all.

So, there are awful lot of spectacular images showing what can be seen from space. On a smaller scale, there’s like a picture that shows the irrigation patterns in Southwest Kansas. And you see all these circular patterns of irrigation because of the way they’ve got the water flow in the irrigation systems.

So, you’ve got all these big circular patterns and little circular patterns all depending on exactly the length of this irrigation mechanism that spins around in a circle.

So, lots of things like that are shown in the book. And as Michael said, it goes through sections on the atmosphere, the ocean, the ice, the land, and the evidence for ten years. So therefore, you’re seeing things like that for each one of those categories.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Looks like we’re run to the end of our program here. One parting note, the climate is changing. And we need to rely very heavily on NASA to speak on this and do something about this because, well, you’re pretty much all we got.

We can’t really look to many other places so, just so we’re counting on you, heavily. I know you didn’t necessarily sign up to save the world.

Claire: If we can help, we’re available.

Justin: Thank you.

Claire: (We try to) help if we can.

Kirsten: Well, yes, I just like to thank you for coming on to talk about the work that you’re doing in this book. The satellite data that has come out over the last 40 years is stunning and striking and I think, really points to the global aspects of our culture, of the human culture and the fact that we are all in this planet together and that a change in Africa does affect things here in America. Things happening in the north do have effects on the south.

And we definitely need to keep that in mind and not think of ourselves as little isolated pockets of people spread out across the land. So, thank you very much for putting this beautiful book together. So it makes it much more visible to the average person.

Claire: Thank you.

Michael: Thank you for inviting us.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. Have a wonderful day and I hope that a lot of people are able to check this book out.

Claire: Well, thank you very much.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. Take care.

Michael: Yes, bye.

Justin: Bye-bye.

Kirsten: So, this is This Week In Science. We’ve come to the end of our hour. We’ve just spoken with Michael King and Claire Parkinson from Goddard Space Center. Our Changing Planet: The View from Space, I just want to show you…

Justin: It’s a really big book.

Kirsten: I’m just going to hold this book right up the microphone.

Justin: Right up to the microphone so you can see stunning images. And it is a textbook too because it’s really full of information.

Kirsten: There’s lot of information.

Justin: But if you learned anything from today’s show, remember…

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

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