My trip to NOAA

by Jeb


NOAA Science on a SphereNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Okay, so my 4th grader’s teacher has a sister that works at NOAA in BOulder, CO and, as a result, her students get to take a sweet tour each year. And because I’m especially cool, I got to be one of the parents who drove some of the chillen from Arvada to Boulder (25 mins or so).

For a non-scientific guy such as myself, I found it extremely interesting, so I wanted to just share some of the things I learned, and saw, along the way. If I’ve gotten anything wrong below - taking notes on my iPhone is a bit of a laborious process, it’s possible I misremembered something by the time my fingers caught up with mah brain - and you’re one of those smart folks, please feel free to correct me…in the interest of science, of course.

Cool Stuff I Learned:

  • NOAA studies weather all over the globe, as well as in space.
  • They store over 300 terabytes of data onsite, and transfer half a terabyte of information to scientists around the world every single day.
  • Storms/explosions on the sun (I forget what they’re called…sun bursts, maybe?) are monitored closely b/c they have an impact on airline communications and astronauts. Planes are often re-routed around certain areas as a result of such events, and astronauts have to stay inside the space station at times b/c with these bursts come an increase in radiation which is dangerous to astronauts. Incidentally, it’s not dangerous to the rest of us (on earth) because our atmosphere does an exquisite job of protecting us from such hazards.
  • Northern lights are the result of our atmosphere interacting with storms in space.
  • Because the sun is made of gas, it does not rotate at the same rate throughout. That is, the center/equator of the sun takes 26 days to make one full rotation while the poles take 36 days to do so.
  • The sun has an eleven year cycle…right now we are in a calm period. But in 5 years or so we will be in a much more active period, when a lot more space storms will occur (if you’re planning a trip to Canada or Alaska to see the Northern Lights, 2014 would be ideal).
  • The temperature on the surface of the sun is over a million degrees fahrenheit, and the sun is 93 million miles from earth.
  • NOAA provides all the satellite weather imagery you see on TV, or wherever.
  • The National Weather Service has 122 offices across the country, and they all forecast for their local markets. Forecasters are on a salary, and have no performance-based bonuses for accuracy (I know this because I asked the question myself. Living in Colorado, I’ve had to accept some of the most inaccurate weather predictions known to man).
  • Weather balloons are launched twice a day, at midnight and noon (Greenwich England time).
  • NOAA uses two types of satellites; Geostationary Satellites remain still in relation to a fixed point on the earth (of course, they don’t actually stay still…they rotate with the earth) so they can get continuous images of said point over time. They are positioned 22,000 miles above the earth’s surface. I think the 2nd type is a Polar Orbit satellite, and those essentially orbit the earth in a pattern (much like you would mow your lawn, covering one strip at a time, in a logical order).
  • NOAA contracts private companies (like Lockheed Martin) to build their satellites, and NASA launches them.
  • Jupiter, the largest planet, is made up entirely of gasses and liquids…no solids. There are storms on Jupiter that are as large as the earth itself, and that have been ongoing for several hundred years at least. Maybe thousands.

Take Aways:

There was more, but I’m surely boring you by now. However, just two more things…

First, of all the people working there with whom we interacted, every one of them seemed to genuinely love their job.  It seems that NOAA is an amazing example of people following their passions and finding a way to synchronize these passions with the act (art?) of making a living. The knowledge they shared was rich, and I’m thankful for it. But the example they provided - for me, and surely for the kids - was far more valuable.

Second, I took a lot of pictures during their ’science on a sphere’ discussion. One of them is at the top of this post, but others can be found here if you’re so inclined. Quite beautiful. It’s a plastic sphere, maybe 5 feet in diameter, suspended, stationary, from the ceiling. And they use 4 projectors, powered by some serious computers, to create the illusion of the sphere rotating, much as the earth does.

They can chose from different data sets to get an amazing graphical representation of the information. For example, they can look strictly at geophysical information (mountains, deserts, vegetation, etc), or they can watch the movement of the ocean’s currents, or they can see a completely dark earth lit only by man-made lights. While it’s certainly beautiful, it’s also useful. By studying certain cities over time, they can tell which ones are gaining population (more/brighter lights) and which are losing population (fewer/duller lights). For the record, the brightest city on the globe??? Yep, you guessed it. Las Vegas.

They can also chose data sets of other planets…those, at least, that we have some satellite imagery of. In this way we were able to see the earth-sized storm on Jupiter, and the largest mountain (that we know of) in our solar system, on Mars…3 times taller than Everest.

So that’s it then. Another fan-damn-tastic day in my part of the world. I’m hopeful yours was equally grand. Cheers!

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