A desert is the perfect place to find water — if you have the right equipment, that is. Scientists and engineers from NASA’s Langley Research Center have set up camp in the “driest place in the world,” the Chilean desert of Atacama, to deploy an instrument called the Far-Infrared Spectroscopy of the Troposphere (FIRST). One of only four instruments of its kind in the world, FIRST measures the effect of high altitude water vapor on the Earth’s atmosphere.
FIRST could help researchers more effectively predict changes in the Earth’s climate, since it measures a band of radiation linked to the absorption of water vapor through the greenhouse effect. This radiation activity is a significant climate factor that may account for half of the Earth’s natural cooling mechanism. However, while other major factors have been studied from satellites, the technology has not been developed to do so with water vapor. The FIRST equipment may well live up to its name and deliver our first precisely measurable insights into the effect of water vapor on our climate.
Far-Infrared and the Earth’s Climate
Up to now, predictions of the greenhouse effect and the impact of man-made emissions have been based on theoretical models. By observing the far-infrared end of the electromagnetic spectrum, researchers can obtain precise measurements about the absorption and emission of radiation from water vapor, and gain a better understanding of the role of high-altitude cirrus clouds in trapping heat. FIRST is one of only four instruments in existence that can observe far-infrared emissions, defined as wavelengths from 15 to 100 micrometers.
The Study of Climate Change: Not as Easy as It Sounds
The Atacama project illustrates some of the more unusual difficulties involved in studying global warming. According to NASA, the researchers needed a high-altitude desert site in order to make direct observations of the far-infrared emission from water vapor. At more than 17,000 feet, the siting of the FIRST instrument requires supplemental oxygen for rotating teams of scientists, who live in a camp at 8,000 feet, involving a round trip commute of three hours on treacherous mountain roads.
A Giant Leap for FIRST
NASA plans to apply the lessons learned at Atacama to make the leap from ground observations to space. It is working to include a FIRST-type instrument on a mission to measure the full infrared spectrum of the Earth’s radiation budget. Set to launch in 2016, the mission is called the Climate Absolute Refractivity and Reflectivity Observatory (CLARREO), which will provide never seen before details about the Earth’s climate. If any deniers are still hanging around by then, none of this will change their minds, but for the rest of us it will provide valuable guidance for climate policies into the future.
Image: .ygor on flickr.com.
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