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The Carbon Crisis in 90 Seconds: Goddard Earth scientist Peter Griffith explains the difference between a banana and a lump of coal

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

still image of banana and lump of coal from peter griffith video
In the run up to last week’s “Best of Goddard” film festival, I came to know Peter Griffith. It turned out we both had made science-related videos in 2011, but missed the deadline to submit them to the Best of Goddard screening. (Mine was a Hubble music video.) Better luck next year! You can see “Best of” videos here, here, here, and here.

Griffith’s day job is managing the NASA Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems research office. But he’s also been active in an interagency program called Earth to Sky, helping to teach national park public education “interpreters” about carbon and climate change so they can incorporate that knowledge into their talks and tours.

Thus was born the video below, which explains the difference between a banana and a lump of coal with respect to Earth’s climate. I won’t get into the details here; the film speaks for itself. It’s a clever and highly effective way to explain a scientific concept that could have easily become deadly dull in the wrong hands.





Griffith made The Carbon Crisis in 90 seconds in collaboration with Eric Mortensen, a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art who was a 2011 summer intern at Goddard. It was one of the 10 videos selected for the American Geophysical Union “S Factor” Science Video Workshop, held in San Francisco on December 6th, 2011. See some of the videos here.

Three Hollywood filmmakers critiqued Griffith’s video and, he says, they liked it. It was one of three that got the nod from one of the filmmaker’s pre-teenage daughter. “I was kind of expecting a little bit harsher treatment,” Griffith says.

The animated version of the film is a more artistically evolved version of what Griffith calls his “talking head version,” with him on camera, well, talking a lot. That segment was originally produced for use on National Park Service Web Rangers site for kids aged 8-12 to earn merit badges by learning some Earth science.

Griffith has plans to obtain a summer intern in 2012 to make another film about carbon and climate (concept as-yet-undetermined). Geeked On Goddard has only one bit of advice: Stick with the banana.


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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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The Biggest Computer Monitor You'll Ever See in Your Life

photo of visualization scientist horace mitchell in front of nasa hyperwallExplore@NASA Goddard Day this past Sunday was a huge success, with an estimated 15,000 people coming to Goddard Space Flight Center to meet astronauts, tour the facilities we use to build and test spacecraft, and — on my end of the campus — see the biggest computer monitor you can imagine.

They call it the hyperwall. It’s a bank of HD monitors banked together to create a huge viewing surface to observe and discuss scientific data and visualizations. It consists of fifteen 46-inch high-definition LCD screens — five across, three high — to create a combined 17-by-6 foot surface. The visualization wall displays both high-definition movies of computer simulation results and interactive data visualizations.

The wall can display a single visualization across all 15 screens or up to 15 or more different visualizations at once for comparison. (No, we don’t sneak in after hours to watch Star Wars or play video games.)

Like hundreds of my colleagues, I was pitching in to Explore@NASA Goddard Day. Mission: meet, greet, and guide people to the hyperwall. Below are a few photos I snapped between helping visitors.


nasa goddard hyperwall
Phil Webster (above left), chief of the NASA Center for Climate Simulation, explains how NCCS research and technology helps scientists and meteorologists. (NCCS built and operates the hyperwall.)


nasa goddard sciewntist horace mitchell gives public talk in front of nasa hyperwall
Horace Mitchell (above right) is the Director of the crack team of scientists, animators, and artists in Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio. They make stunning images and movies from actual data collected by NASA spacecraft of Earth and the wider universe.


nasa goddard hyperwall shows polar orbiting satellites
Polar-orbiting satellites swoop over a glowing HD Earth on the hyperwall during the presentations for Explore@NASA Goddard Day.
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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Why understanding something smaller than a pinprick (an aerosol particle) is the key to something as big as a planet (global climate)

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

UPDATE MARCH 4: Sadly, Glory launched this morning but did not reach orbit because the payload faring did not separate. The faring protects and encloses the satellite during launch and initial ascent. With this extra weight onboard, the launch system was unable to reach orbit and landed in the ocean. Condolences to the mission team that spent years designing and building the ill-fated Glory spacecraft.


mosaic of images and art associated with glory mission

To learn anything, you first need to know what you don’t know. Let’s call them the “known unknowns.”

In climate science, one of the thorniest known unknowns is the impact of aerosols, microscopic particles that drift in the atmosphere absorbing and reflecting energy, and tweaking clouds. My colleague Adam Voiland — Goddard Space Flight Center’s chronicler of all things aerosol — explained it this way in one of his many fine web features and press releases on the topic:

“The particles can directly influence climate by reflecting or absorbing the sun’s radiation. In broad terms, this means bright-colored or translucent aerosols, such as sulfates and sea salt aerosols, tend to reflect radiation back towards space and cause cooling. In contrast, darker aerosols, such as black carbon and other types of carbonaceous particles, can absorb significant amounts of light and contribute to atmospheric warming.”



The Glory mission, which is scheduled to go into orbit this week, will attempt a much better understanding of aerosols and — climatologists hope — lead to needed improvements in the computer simulations that predict where earth’s climate is heading in the coming decades.

But for my part, the Glory mission actually takes me back a decade or so, to the mid-1990s when I worked for a now-defunct science magazine called Earth. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had, in 1995, published its Second Assessment Report. Using a newfangled thingie called the World Wide Web, science reporters eagerly poured over the IPCC report’s many hundreds of pages, trying to make sense of it all.

One issue that stood out was — you guessed it — the role of aerosols in global climate change. Here’s what the panel authors said on page 525 of a portion of the IPCC report, Working Group I: The Science of Climate Change.

“Atmospheric aerosols (Chapter 2) also play an important role in the Earth’s radiative budget. There are fairly reliable estimates of the amount of sulphur burned but these do not translate directly into number density of aerosols, for which the size, hygroscopic and optical properties, as well as their vertical, horizontal and temporal distributions, have not been well observed.”



Allow me to translate: It’s saying that we know how much sulfur-containing fuels we burn (coal, for example), which produces sulfate particles that have a cooling effect on climate; but that doesn’t tell us how much of this aerosol is produced, how much energy it reflects, and where it is.

And on page 526, the report tells us why we should care about aerosols, from a practical point of view:

Thus, at present the uncertainty in aerosol radiative forcing is the largest source of uncertainty in the total radiative forcing of climate over the past industrial period. Since aerosols are very patchy in their distribution, they could create significant regional climate changes regardless of their effect on globally averaged forcing.



{If you have a lot of time on your hands or need something very heavy to hold doors open, download and print Working Group I: The Science of Climate Change by clicking HERE.}

So here is the punchline for this week: Glory will provide data needed to help resolve uncertainties about aerosols and climate. The hope is that computer models will be able to make better predictions of where Earth’s climate is heading.

If you want to learn more, here is a series of recent videos about the Glory mission. And don’t miss this and this web feature about Glory, by Adam Voiland.






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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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The Supercomputer Down the Hall: A Journey into the Guts of Goddard's Discover Supercomputing Cluster

June 16, 2010 4 comments
This portion of the Discover supercompouting cluster racks up about 90 teraflops of number crunching power.

This portion of the Discover supercomputing cluster racks up about 90 teraflops of number crunching power.

Have you ever seen a supercomputer? Do you know how one works?

I got a chance to look a supercomputer in the face recently, when I took an employee tour of the Discover supercomputer at Goddard Space Flight Center. It’s literally down the hall from me. I just never got a chance to see it up close since I started working here almost a year ago. Discover is the workhorse computing resource for the NASA Center for Climate Simulation.

It’s a pretty impressive gadget. Walking between the metal racks packed with equipment, multicolored blinky lights aglow, I thought of a famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The spaceship’s supercomputer, HAL, has gone all homicidal on the crew, so astronaut Dave Bowman climbs into its brain and starts to unplug stuff. Famously, this reduces the paranoid evil genius HAL to the level of a blubbering toddler singing “Daisy.”

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Blogolicious Supercomputer Facts

Goddard Space Flight Center’s Discover supercomputer can perform approximately 159 trillion calculations per second. The supercomputer consists of:

  • 14,968 processors
  • 12,904 memory modules
  • 35,608 gigabytes of random-access memory
  • 3,120 hard drives
  • 5 miles of copper cables
  • 6 miles of fiber-optic cables

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Tubes and wires oh my! The ENIAC supercomputer.

Tubes and wires oh my! The ENIAC supercomputer.

I would bet that if you asked 10 people on the street to draw a supercomputer, they would produce something like HAL’s nerve center — a softly humming, dimly glowing cybercave.

Or, they might sketch something like ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer. Eighty feet long and weighing 27 tons, ENIAC contained more than 17,000 vacuum tubes.

To make computers really fast in those days, you had to place their various components close together so the electrical signals wouldn’t have to travel too far. Each “trip” meant a tiny delay. Many, many delays add up to a computing traffic jam.

These days, it’s different. Supercomputers like Discover are essentially collections of many, many  smaller-scale computing devices working in parallel to solve big tasks.

They are not necessarily in the same place, either. Discover’s machinery is spread across several rooms, connected by a high-speed data network. People can network into the system from across the country via data superhighways.

Now I’m going to talk some tech. And I’m going to be disgustingly precise about it. Supercomputer people talk nodes, processors, cores, and teraflops. It’s notoriously confusing, but you have to understand these terms to really get supercomputing. So here we go . . .

The functional unit of Discover is the processor, just like in your desktop PC or laptop (or iPhone or whatever). The processor is a little brain on a silicon chip. It does the number-crunching.

Waaayyyy back in the day — like, before 2005! — the motherboard of your computer sported a single processor on a single chip. If you wanted more processing power, you had to add more chips.

Not anymore. Now the little brain in your computer has multiple Central Processing Units (CPUs), or “cores,” working in parallel. The processor in my Mac Book Pro, for example, contains two cores. It’s an Intel Core 2 Duo. Both cores reside on the same chip, the same little slab of silicon.

So, are you still with me?

The Discover supercomputer uses dual-core and quad-core processors. In other words, each slab of silicon hosts two cores or four cores. For the ubergeeks in the house, the brand name of the latest processor is Intel Xeon Nehalem. (And yes, you can buy personal computers with this processor — the Mac Pro 2.66 GHz workstation, for example.)

Discover uses about 15,000 cores to crunch data. The cores exist within racks and racks of gizmos called nodes.

Each node has two Xeon Nehalem processors, for a total of either four or eight cores. So each node is equivalent to a really, really fast desktop computer, something with twice the horsepower of the aforementioned Mac Pro workstation. Each node has a hard drive for its operating system software as well as network interfaces for moving data in and out.

Blinky lights: one of the high-speed switches that connect Discover's computing nodes.

Blinky lights: one of the high-speed switches that connect Discover's computing nodes.

So what does this all mean? It means that the supercomputer at the heart of climate and weather science at NASA Goddard runs on the same kind of processors found in personal computers — perhaps yours.

The processors work in parallel, like an army of workers digging a canal with shovels. Each processor lifts a shovelful of data at a time, but if you have a lot of shovels, you end up with the Panama Canal.

Of course, the thousands of workers also need life support, like shelter, food, and water. In supercomputing terms, that means electricity and cooling systems to carry waste heat away from the processors.

A lot of clever engineering went into packing Discover into a couple of rooms. For example, the back doors of the equipment racks have heat-sucking radiators built into them. The radiators are hooked up to Goddard’s chilled water system. Having multiple cores on the same chip reduces the hardware required to prevent a cybermeltdown.

Although right now Discover crunches with 15,000 cores, a planned upgrade will bring it to around 29,000. And what does this all buy you? About 160 teraflops of computing power for the moment.

A teraflop is one trillion floating point operations per second. Flops measure the computing horsepower of a system, its ability to crunch numbers. Add two numbers in your head: you have just completed one floating point operation.

So what is 160 teraflops?

Get the entire world population to add two numbers every second for 5 hours and 20 minutes. That’s 160 teraflops!

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.


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Highs and Lows from Ten Years of Terra, Flagship of the NASA Earth Observing System

May 18, 2010 2 comments
oil spill_304

The Terra satellite watches from orbit as an oil spill drifts toward the Louisiana Delta.

Change, as the old saying goes, is the only constant thing in the universe. Just over a decade ago, NASA launched a satellite called Terra to watch Earth’s surface and atmosphere. How is the planet changing and what are the consequences of change for life down here?

Last week, the Terra folks at Goddard held a private bash at our Visitor’s Center to celebrate Terra’s many accomplishments to date. Here are some of the various highs and lows of the mission that caught my eye:

HIGH: On December 18, 1999, Terra blasted off to a typical Earth-observing orbit 435 miles above the surface . . . It is 22 feet long and 11.5 feet wide, or about the size of a small school bus. Did I mention it weighed 5 tons (10,506 lbs) at launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base? . . In contrast, its high-tech lightweight solar panel weighed just 371 pounds because it was made up of solar cells fixed to a flexible blanket that unfurled in orbit. (Thanks to Eric Moyer, EOS Mission Director, for looking up that blogolicious science fact about Terra.)

The Terra spacecraft

The Terra spacecraft

LOW:  Millions of people grounded in Europe by drifting ash from Iceland’s (deep breath) Eyjafjallajokull Volcano. On May 13, Terra’s MODIS instrument observed the irritatingly unpronounceable volcano mixing it up with a local weather system.

HIGH:  Terra’s CERES instrument package measures how much solar energy Earth absorbs and how infrared radiation and heat is emitted back into space. Such sky-high measurements mean a lot for us puny groundlings, since Earth’s “energy balance” affects global climate.

LOW:  Terra told us that gases and particle that drag down air quality can be Asian imports transported long distances by the wind. The MOPITT instrument on Terra sniffs out carbon monoxide; the MODIS and MISR gizmo’s track tiny aerosol particles. Both carbon monoxide and aerosols influence air quality.

station fire_202HIGH:  Terra’s MISR instrument showed that large wildfires inject particles ands gases high into the atmosphere. This enables the smoke to drift long distances. For example, smoke from the high-flying plumes of the 2009 Station Fire drifted as far as Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. Carbon monoxide from the fire traveled at least as far as Louisiana.

mudslides_202LOW:  Terra’s ASTER instrument has proven a valuable tool for imaging mudslides, a notoriously murderous natural hazard sometimes unleashed by the combination of volcanic ash eruptions and heavy rainfall. In this image captured December 12, 2006, mudslides are black against a red background of plant-covered land. The populated towns Legazpi and Daraga are gray with white highlight from reflective surfaces.

Scientists and supporters of the Terra mission whoop it up at the Goddard Visitor Center.

Scientists and supporters of the Terra mission whoop it up at the Goddard Visitor Center.

Gogblog gratefully tips his blogolicious hat to Kathryn Hansen and Mike Carlowicz from NASA’s Earth Science News Team for their detailed account of Terra’s scientific accomplishments, from which much of this blog post was adapted.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.


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