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AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL: When it comes to climate change, we know we have a problem, we even know why we have a problem, but we don't know quite how we have a problem. That's because our climate models are still woefully inadequate — we don't fully understand how greenhouse gases cycle through the atmosphere, which makes fighting global warming difficult. Scientists are hard at work to remedy that, however, and several of them are in the news today:
- One team of skyentists aims to crack the code of atmospheric carbon by flying around the world in a huge corporate-jet-turned-sky-lab, measuring every aspect of where and when CO2 enters and leaves the atmosphere. Doing so will hopefully inform a more complete climate model, which will in turn inform global climate change policies and treaties. The team is about to finish its first mission, a series of 11 flights that began Jan. 8, and has four more planned through mid-2011 that will provide "slices" of the atmosphere in different locations at different seasons. (Source: Scientific American)
- Our understanding of water vapor, a natural and often-overlooked greenhouse gas, is also lacking. Like CO2, water vapor traps heat and radiates it back downward, but climatologists still don't fully grasp the complex global dynamics of evaporated water. Climate modelers at Hawaii's Mauna Loa research station — first used to study atmospheric CO2 50 years ago because of its unique altitude and isolation — aim to change that. By better understanding the oxygen and hydrogen isotopes (varying weights of the atoms) that make up water vapor, they hope to better predict how and how fast greenhouse gases like CO2 are changing the climate. (Sources: LiveScience, NOAA)
- The Christian Science Monitor also reports this week on water vapor's climatic influences, pointing out that as CO2 concentrations rise and heat things up, the atmosphere can suddenly hold more water vapor, which then heats things up even more. Part of the problem is that the sources of atmospheric moisture are tricky to pin down, and the Monitor talks to several scientists who track hydrogen and oxygen isotopes to figure out how evaporated water moves around. They're a dedicated bunch — one Ph.D. student flew 18,000 feet high, in a propeller-driven go-cart and parachute, to collect air samples. (Source: CS Monitor)