NOAA and the floods…

Today I started as an ‘affiliate’ at the National Oceanographic & Atmosphere Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory (NOAA ESRL). My first day saw quite wet and cold weather conditions. And the mountains, just to the west, saw the first real snow fall this year. I was told that it was a little unusual for this time of year, so I couldn’t help but feel that I had brought the wet and cold weather with me from across the pond! A friend of mine said that some around here do get nervous when so much rain falls in the space of a few days, bring back the still-fresh memories of the fatal floods of 2013.

So my commute to-and-from NOAA, which was logistically very simple thanks to the DASH bus almost door-to-door, was just a tad soggy! I took a brolly…


I was very warmly welcomed when I arrived, by the ‘airport-style’ security in the first instance and then by the staff I will be working with. It was very good to finally meet Ann Thorne in particular, who I had many email correspondences with in order to set up my placement. Most of the day was spent setting up and touring around with Ann and Dr Pieter Tans, who is taking me under his wing for the next 2 months. I have to say I was in awe and admiration for the entire morning, both through very engaging discussions with Pieter and the different equipment and processes taking place in various labs. I needed the afternoon just to settle, sort out my IT account and gather my thoughts.

One of the most amazing things I saw was the calibration equipment. To put it simply, how do you know a kilogram of sugar is really a kilogram? Or that a clock that ticks is really measuring a second? You can understand why it’s important to get those simple every-day things right. The wrong amounts of ingredients in a mixture can throw off a recipe (or you could be ripped-off by some over-weighted dodgy fruit and veg scales at the market). Transport over long distances, like trains or planes will have their logistics thrown off as those second-by-second errors accumulate.

For NOAA’s ESRL, not only have they got to get their calibrations right, like when they measure 1000mb of air pressure, they really are measuring 1000mb of air pressure, or more importantly, that measurement of 400ppm of CO2 really is 400ppm of CO2, but they set the standard for the rest of the world. Yes, that’s right. Every scientific measurement of the atmosphere has to meet a certain degree of quality control, and I was standing next to the equipment that helps set that standard! Not only that, but checks are made that the measurement of a certain amount of gas remains within an acceptable degree of accuracy as time goes on, equipment changes and collection methods evolve. It is an exceptionally important task.

So you see this big grey box and everything coming out of it? Well, I don’t understand exactly how it works, but I’m a high-school teacher so I like analogies. So think of this equipment as your basic plastic kitchen scales – ones which you have to turn the dial to reset it to 0 when it’s not loaded, or turn the dial to read 1kg when you put a set 1kg weight in it. That’s effectively what it is, just a lot more complex!

The second picture shows canisters of gasses, set at certain concentrations. When I looked at the labels, some of those canisters were off to China, South Africa, Harvard University (US)… For example, one canister off to the South African Weather Service contains a set recorded amount of CO2, methane, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide, for them to use with their equipment. Those establishments may then use those canisters and flasks to calibrate their machines.

We’re still yet to bash out exactly what it is I will be doing while at NOAA, not helped by me stating that I came with nothing really set in my mind. I would like to get out in the field, but other than that, I just hope I can immerse myself and just be a useful, productive member of the team. Needless to say, I feel very honoured and privileged to be given the opportunity!


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