Understanding the NASA research off the Namibian coast

Understanding the NASA research off the Namibian coast


New Era Weekend sat down with Dr Jens Redemann, the research physical scientist National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Principal Investigator for the NASA ORACLES (ObseRvations of Aerosols above CLouds and their intEractionS) project in Namibia to gain a better understanding of the project.

Question: What is the ORACLES project trying to achieve?
Response: “The goal of ORACLES is to improve our ability to forecast climate. Biomass burning aerosols – smoke particles – influence climate in a way that is not well understood. When both smoke and clouds are present together, as is the case off the coast of Namibia, the effects are very complicated. Climate scientists want to improve their understanding of these effects, so they can be more accurately represented in climate models. ORACLES will fly an instrumented aircraft to measure properties of aerosols and clouds and to study the interactions between them.”

Question: What would be the practical application of the results from the study, and how would these impact/benefit the everyday life of an ordinary person?
Response: “Scientists have found that including large plumes of aerosol particles in computer weather forecast models can improve the prediction of weather events such as storms. These may lead to better predictability of water resources that may have direct impacts on people on a daily basis.

Question: It was said that the coast of Namibia is one of three places on earth with persistent low-level clouds, and the only such location with a steady supply of tiny aerosol particles in the form of smoke from inland fires that mix with the clouds. What are the other places?
Response: “The other two places with a persistent low-level cloud deck are the southwest coast of the United States, that is California, and the southwest coast of South America, or Chile.”

Question: Can we have an insight into the team composition – the scientists involved and their special fields of study?
Response: “Atmospheric science, physics, engineering, chemistry, computer science, and electrical engineering are only some of the degrees held by the team members. Some are experts in a particular instrument or measurement, some are experts in a field, for example, climate modelling, cloud physics, aerosol chemistry.”

Question: Could you kindly paint us a picture of how would a typical day entail for the scientists on this research mission for the next three years?
Response: “On a flight day, an instrument scientist would report to the airport at about 7 am, and power up and check their instrument’s basic function. After taking off around 9 am, the scientist observes the measurements and/or maintains their instrument in proper working order, throughout the eight to ten hours flight. After landing, data is downloaded and backed up. They might return to their hotel at 7 pm, eat dinner [and] examine data from a prior flight. The next day would be devoted to planning the next flight. Meetings are held beginning at 8 am to consider forecasts for clouds and smoke, the health of instruments and the aircraft, and determine where to fly to achieve ORACLES science goals. There are many team members with different roles – pilots, forecasters, modellers, aircraft maintainers, [and so on], and their tasks differ from the ones mentioned above. But their tasks are driven by our schedule to fly about every other day.”

Question: Most research studies of this nature require exhaustive planning. Can you briefly tell us of the work, and challenges experienced, during the planning stages up to the realisation of the research study?
Response: “The four to five years before actually coming to Namibia in 2016, the Principal Investigator, I and a small team of associates, had to create the concept for the effort: what to study, where, why, and with which instruments? At what time of year, using which aircraft? Which measurements are the right ones to make? I gathered a larger supporting team of scientists skilled in making the desired measurements, and in implementing this type of effort, and write plan, or proposal, which is read by a review team. In this call for proposals, the five plans relevant to NASA’s goals and objectives with the greatest chance for success were selected in November 2014.”

“Then, a more concerted effort begins to plan the detailed tasks of implementing the project. Airports are visited to confirm suitability of the final location. Potential collaborators are contacted, and international science relationships begin to develop. Support equipment is shipped or purchased. Visas and permissions are requested and travel accommodations are finalized for 80 to 100 persons. Beginning about two months before the aircraft plans to depart for Namibia, each instrument team installs their instrument on the aircraft. Test flights are flown in the US to insure the plane and instruments are working properly. Then the plane departs for Namibia, to fly about 12 to 15 times in a month.”

“Challenges result from the sheer scope of the effort. It involves dozens of measurements, large volumes of equipment, over 100 team members, communications across several time zones and travel to and through several countries.”

Question: How does Namibia benefit from hosting a NASA project?
Response: “In the long term, Namibia will benefit from improved projections of regional climate and precipitation. Namibian scientists are interested in ocean ecosystem productivity, important to the fishing industry; and in near-coast fog distribution, which sustains the desert ecosystems. ORACLES measurements can be helpful in these Namibian studies. In addition, NASA is involving Namibian students in the project and reaching out to Namibian communities. Classrooms have visited the hangar, and pilots and scientists have visited classrooms. University of Namibia (Unam) and Namibian University of Science and Technology (NUST) have selected graduate students to work alongside the science team during the planning and execution of flights.

These students, who experienced a NASA research flight, gain exposure to the complexities of conducting this type of research. NASA, with Gobabeb and NUST, has supported the Ongwediva Science Festival in September 2016 and the Windhoek Trade Show in October 2016. In the short term, our activity contributes to the local economy as the team must procure aviation fuel, lodging, internet, transportation, and shipping services.

In 2016 about 100 scientists came to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, and we calculate that the project contributed N$10 million to the local economy.”

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