NASA Researcher Presents at KU


By Nick Mott
Spring 2011

On February 9, Jack Kaye, Associate Director for Research in the Earth Science Division of NASA, delivered a presentation entitled “Space-Based View of a Changing Climate and Its Implications” at the Dole Institute of Politics. On February 10, he presented “NASA Satellite Observations and their Role in the Study of Global Change” to CReSIS faculty, students and staff.

Kaye, trained in Chemistry, said that his division looks at everything from the earth’s core to the stratopause. Such a broad program is interdisciplinary, encompassing everything from geology to oceanography to meteorology to geophysics. “You name it,” he said.

NASA is unique in that the organization focuses on using data from satellites in orbit around earth. “When the satellites go up and start looking down, that’s when my program goes to work,” Kaye said.

He said that satellite data helps to characterize the variability inherent in Earth’s system by looking at the forces that act on it. Kaye’s division looks at forces from without, like the sun, forces from within, like volcanoes, and contributions that humans may make. Human interactions with the planet, such as increasing greenhouse gas concentrations, changing the makeup of the land surface through urbanization, and deforestation, have scientifically tangible effects that have the potential to change the way the system works, he said.

Kaye said the Earth Science Division is also concerned with understanding how different pieces of Earth’s system interact with each other. “This is our planetary home,” he said, “and we really should know what our environment is.”

Ultimately, Kaye said, researchers at his division at NASA seek to develop computer models that quantitatively test scientific understanding of Earth’s system processes. Accurate models, he explained, “will let us retrospectively convince ourselves that we actually understand the way the earth behaves, and that then gives us the confidence to predict into the future.”

For Kaye, the true value of satellite data on global change rests on predictive power. “Collectively, we all make environmentally-informed decisions,” he said. At a rudimentary level, when leaving the house in the morning, one decides whether or not to bring an umbrella on the basis of the probability that it will rain. One decides whether or not to wear a heavy coat and gloves on the basis of the expected temperature. Businesses, individuals and policy-makers, though, make environmentally-informed decisions on a much larger time-scale.

Though dogsleds or plane flights might track a limited area only a few times, satellites cross each pole 60 times a day, thus enabling the creation of a long-term database. Kaye claims that the scientific community ultimately needs an integrated scientific approach composed of satellite data, remote sensing technology, and other useful technologies and research methods.

Kaye finds his work at NASA fascinating because of the unique potential of satellites and the free and equal spread of scientific information throughout the world. For the first time, environmental data is available to developing countries that otherwise lack the infrastructure to collect their own information. “We’re not simply doing science,” he said. ‘We’re providing information to people so that they can try to make better environmental decisions, better policy, and, in real time, protect life, health and property.”

This protection is becoming increasingly important. As polar ice melts, Kaye claimed, sea level will rise. Many coastal countries are incredibly sensitive to even minute rises. “Good environmental information will help them think about what they’re going to do, as well as help the nations of the world decide how to take some of these considerations into their environmental policies.”

Kaye, though, identifies one of the primary luxuries of his position as the strictly apolitical, scientific nature of his work. “We’re not a regulatory agency, we’re a not a policy making agency. Our focus is on science.”

David Braaten, Deputy Director of CReSIS, said that both presentations had a fantastic turnout. “Both talks were very informative and well-received.”

Braaten said that the lectures brought attention to the climate change issue and highlighted incredible data sets available through NASA that enable the examination of many geophysical and geochemical aspects of earth system science.

Kaye hopes that his lectures helped the Kansas and CReSIS communities to understand the role of satellites in global observations and the study of global change. “This isn’t just looking after ourselves,” he said. “This is something that can contribute to the welfare of humanity. Environmental information means in principle that people can make better decisions.”

Too often people perceive science as a dry, boring, impersonal endeavor. Kaye thinks that this couldn’t be further from the truth. “It’s a great time because it’s stuff our ancestors could only dream about. What was over the horizon, we didn’t know. What was on the other side of the world, we didn’t know. What’s going to happen a couple days from now, we didn’t know.” Scientists of all disciplines now have access to unparalleled scientific technology and information.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get excited about this stuff,” Kaye said.