As the Ecosystem Turns

"Should we talk about the weather? Should we talk about the government?" - R.E.M.

During my illustrious Federal Aviation Administration career, I had the interesting privilege of helping support a NASA research project which took place in Manhattan, Kansas in the summer of 1986. I know what you're thinking - why on earth would NASA be doing research in Manhattan, Kansas?

Well, I'm glad you asked. This particular project was a study of climatology and was intended to improve our ability to forecast weather based on LANDSAT imagery. The project was called FIFE - an acronym which stands for 'First ISLCSP Field Experiment'. What is an ISLCSP? It is actually another acronym which stands for 'International Satellite Land Climataology Survey Project'. That's right - nested acronyms! We have acronyms within acronyms, courtesy of the US Government!

The methodology of this experiment required a unique location. Their plan consisted of stacking a variety of aircraft at various altitudes over a known and documented piece of unoccupied land. The location chosen needed to have three things. First, there had to be enough airports within 50 nautical miles to handle the following diverse aircraft types; a UH-1 helicopter, a DH-6 Twin Otter, a Beech King Air 90, a C-130 cargo plane, a DC-8 airliner, a Lear Jet model 35, and a TR-1 (a re-purposed research version of the famous U-2 spy plane). What this meant was we needed at least one airport with an enormous runway capable of handling the DC-8 and another that was secure enough to put a secret spy plane variant on it. As it happens, Salina has a runway roughly 3 miles long and Forbes Air National Guard base has the security.

The second requirement was for a patch of land with a well-documented climate history and without any human occupation on it. It so happens that Kansas State University owns a patch known as the Konza Prairie Preserve which exactly fits that requirement.

Finally, there needed to be real-time weather information (or as close to that as you could get in 1986) which meant an FAA flight service station - the exact place I happened to work.

The aircraft were scattered about and they were owned by a variety of agencies. The C-130 ended up on the Manhattan Airport and that was where most of the personnel were stationed. There was a complete flight crew for the aircraft which included ground crew, pilot and co-pilot, flight engineer, and a loadmaster. The flight crew was all Navy people based at Moffat Naval Air Station in Santa Cruz. They were basically typical military aviation personnel - a type of people I knew well from my work.

Also located in Manhattan was the NASA scientific crew from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Landover, Maryland. These people were scientists. They were led by an expatriate Brit named Dr. Piers Sellers who would go on to become an actual astronaut and log a ton of hours in spacewalk. He had a quirky sense of humor, too - he would wander into the station to look at weather charts and make jokes. In the middle of summer, the flight crew planned a big picnic and barbecue to celebrate the 4th of July and at one point, I absent-mindedly asked Dr. Sellers if he was attending the July 4th picnic. He looked blank for a moment, and then said, "Oh, you mean the 'Day of Treachery'? I plan on waiting until all you Yanks are good and drunk, then steal the country back."

In addition to the flight crew and the scientists, there was one other individual there whose name was Erwin Prater. He has gone on to be a pretty big name in the world of meteorology, but at that time he was a grad student at the University of Wyoming and was working as the project's weather forecaster. His payment for this was a daily stipend and course credit. He was under enormous pressure, too. There were some mission profiles that could only be flown with less than a certain percentage of cloud cover. If he guessed wrong and they sent up a plane only to discover there as a few percent too much cloud, it cost the government something like $20k. Erwin was kind of stressed out a lot of the summer. He had previously worked on the VORTEX project which had as its goal, placing an instrument package directly in the path of a live tornado. (And you thought Twister was fiction!) We had a severe thunderstorm at the station one evening and the guys at Fort Riley control tower called me to say they saw a funnel. I watched Erwin dash out the door to get a glimpse of it. He climbed up on top of a fuel truck full of aviation fuel, next to the FBO sign which stuck up about thirty feet into the air right in the middle of a lightning storm to try to get a look.

And compared to the flight crew and the scientists, Erwin seemed pretty normal.

I rode along on one of the C-130 missions. The flight profile consisted of flying grid lines over the prairie at 16000 feet while a bunch of scientists in parkas and mittens sat back in the cargo compartment operating computers while the cargo door was opened and a microwave soil radiometer was trailed out behind the aircraft. It was incredibly boring on the flight deck. At least, it was until the very end of the 4 hour mission.

There was a trailer full of scientists parked on the edge of the prairie preserve which was known as Konza Ops. The flight crew referred to it as 'Gonzo Ops' because they generally regarded the scientists as complete wackos. At the end of the mission, the pilot urged me to stand up on the flight deck between him and the co-pilot. "You're gonna want to see this. I'm going to buzz Gonzo Ops." I stood up and moved forward for a good view. At that point, the pilot rolled the aircraft onto the right wingtip and let it fall 16000 feet. Well, to be precise, he let it fall about 15,800 feet. He pulled out about 200 feet over that trailer and generated enough G-force that I fell to my knees on the flight deck. Inside that trailer, the sound of those four giant turboprops 200 feet overhead must have sounded like the apocalypse. The flight crew was cackling with glee.

In my FAA career, I met pilots from every branch of the military. Each branch has a unique personality, too. The Army's pilots are actually just truck drivers who fly airplanes. I actually think the Army has one manual - a truck driver's manual - which they edit accordingly. Chopper pilots get a version with the word 'truck' replaced with 'helicopter'. Fixed wing pilots get the word 'truck' replaced with 'airplane'. But they all fly like they're driving a truck. Air Force pilots behave like well-trained professionals and while they are generally safety conscious and procedure driven, they carry an air of assumed superiority - they seem to think they are the REAL pilots.

The Navy chaps would beg to differ. To them, landing a multi-million dollar aircraft on a deck the size of a postage stamp in the middle of the ocean defines what a REAL pilot can do. They also have a tendency to turn into absolute cowboys every now and then. Air Force seems to be more 'by the book' while the Navy flyers are cockier and a bit crazier.

And to anyone who is a veteran of either service who disagrees with me, I plead small sample size.

So what did NASA find?

Well, there are no aliens living in the Konza Prairie Preserve, as far as we can tell. I am told that the aerial surveys revealed previously hidden data that was part of what we captured in LANDSAT photos. I'm no expert on satellite imagery, though I have been trained to interpret GOES infrared views for weather. But in this case I have to take their word for it.

Interestingly, the Navy fliers had to leave Manhattan in August to head down to Tiera del Fuego in the DC-8. Their mission there would be to measure the hole in the ozone layer which exists over the Antarctic. This opening in the ozone layer varies in size. It actually expands and contracts regularly over a 7-year cycle. The NASA team verified this cycle and also verified that the peaks in the opening size are gradually increasing over time, though the history of these measurements doesn't go back far enough to give us a statistically valid rate of change. We suspect it is getting worse - we can't say how much or how fast or how long this has been going on.

And herein lays one of the serious challenges of climate change: the climate changes over time and has been doing so for millennia uncounted. But we don't have a detailed history that goes back any more than a century or so. Beyond that, it's tougher to be exact. The evidence is indirect. We also know that there are human effects that change the climate. CO2 emissions and other pollutants most certainly do affect the global temperature and can alter the chemical composition of the upper atmosphere. But how much?

The only way to measure how much CO2 emissions affect temperature is to try to show that temperature has increased during the period of industrialization in the world. And it has - but geological evidence and others suggest that this was happening to some extent long before industrialization, as well. Unfortunately, we lack data precise enough to be able to spell out exactly how much industrialization has changed the climate. But we do know two things: Industrialization (and other aspects of growing human population) is affecting the climate, and it is affecting it significantly. We also know one other very depressing thing: the effects are basically irreversible.

So why study it? Well, as temperatures rise and the weather becomes more violent over time, the more we know about the mechanics and how to analyze the data, the better we will be able to predict it. Yes, storms will likely become more frequent and more powerful over time. But if we're better prepared for them, it will certainly help. Also, if we understand the mechanics of climate change, even if we can't reverse the effects we should be able to slow down the rate of change. This alone is worth pursuing - our lives may depend on it.

I realize a lot of people out there have reached the conclusion that anything man does is 'unnatural' and we have to try to find a way to live in harmony with the environment. Both of these statements are just nonsense.

Humans are organisms living on this planet. We evolved here and our tool-using, resource-exploiting, machine-creating tendencies are only 'unnatural' in that we are the only species that makes extensive use of those things. But to say our behavior is 'unnatural' only makes sense if we evolved somewhere else and were deposited on this planet by aliens. We as a species were born here, we are products of our environment, and what we do is as 'natural' as any other species.

I mean exactly what I say - every species on this planet, and I do mean every single one, has an impact on the environment. All of them. Every insect, every bacteria, every fish, every single plant, they all have an impact on the environment around them and it would be terribly naïve to assume every single effect generated by every species is 'natural' and benign. The truth is, once you introduce life of ANY KIND into a planetary environment, everything goes downhill. The process of using that environment up and breaking it down has begun.

Don't interpret that as me saying we should just go crazy generating greenhouse gases and burning up resources. I don't mean that at all. What I mean is the process moves one direction - toward entropy, decay, and environmental breakdown. You can't make it go the other direction. What you can do is slow down the rate of destruction. Hopefully, long enough to let us find our way to another planet where we can begin destroying another environment. With luck, we'll remember what we've learned and slow the process down a bit next time.

As for the notion of 'living in harmony' with the environment, that is a foolish pipe dream based on a severe misinterpretation of how the environment works. The environment has a finite amount of resources in it. Finite - as in, there are limits. You can't change this fact. And in order for any species, and I do mean ANY species, to thrive, they have to use up resources. Naturally, this leads to conflict. Species must compete with each other to get the resources they want and need. This competition will eventually lead to the poorer competitors dying out.

We call this 'evolution by natural selection'. Humans with our giant brains and clever tools are not 'unnatural'. We're just really, really good at competing for resources. So good, in fact, that we're shoving this planet's environment down the path toward entropy a lot faster than is good for us. Slowing that process down is a vital task and one to which we should be devoting a lot of effort and money. We're not going to stop it: the planet is going that direction no matter what we do. But slowing the decay is important.

Living in harmony with the environment is a myth as well. The environment is actually a ruthlessly efficient killing machine. Billions of species have gone extinct over the centuries and billions more will do so before … well, whatever it is that kills us all at once. Be it climate change, the Yellowstone Supervolcano, the Mayan Apocalypse, a rogue asteroid, or whatever; when it hits it's just going to finish the job Mother Nature has been methodically performing for eons.

So cheer up! Every day is a gift from Yahweh, Gaea, Rama, Vishnu, Allah, Buddha, or whoever. Enjoy it while you can.