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Topic(s):

Atmosphere, Climate

 

Scenario:

Science Daily: (Nov. 18, 2008) — "Water vapor is known to be Earth's most abundant greenhouse gas, but the extent of its contribution to global warming has been debated. Using recent NASA satellite data, researchers have estimated more precisely than ever the heat-trapping effect of water in the air, validating the role of the gas as a critical component of climate change."

Water vapor is indeed a powerful greenhouse gas. The results of one recent study concludes that the clear skies radiative longwave forcing for water vapor is almost double that of carbon dioxide. If water vapor has this significant impact on climate change and water vapor concentrations are a function of natural processes associated with the water cycle, weather and global circulation patterns, does it make sense to regulate the emission of other greenhouse gases like methane and CO2?

What exactly is the role of water vapor in climate change? Good question and one that is not likely to be completely answered any time soon. The results from two recent studies seem to only add to the confusion. One study explored changes in surface temperatures in Europe. (abstract). Since 1980, temperatures in Europe have been rising especially fast with temperatures in central Europe (Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Switzerland, and Slovenia) rising three times faster than the average for the hemisphere. Although some atmospheric scientists ascribe this variation to natural weather cycles, this study suggests that changes in water vapor levels in the troposphere over Europe may be driving the rapid temperature change. Results from the other study suggest that the recent slowing of global climate change may be due to a decrease in water vapor concentrations in the stratosphere and that rapid changes in global temperatures from 1980-2000 may have been facilitated by a drying of the atmosphere at these altitudes.

A quick Internet search reveals that water vapor is often missing entirely from charts, graphs and general information about the effects of greenhouse gases on climate. The NASA AIRS (Atmospheric Infrared Sounder) program provides data that may help analyze the connections between water vapor and temperature changes in Europe. NASA's Giovanni visualization tool provides access to the AIRS water vapor and temperature data.

 

Task:

Basic
Your team has been asked to assist in the preparation of a summary report about the role of water vapor in climate change. This report will be provided to members of a Congressional climate policy committee. Your part of the report is needed to help committee members understand global distribution of water vapor concentrations and the interrelationships between water vapor and surface temperatures. These relationships should be clearly documented in your earth system analysis and contribute to a clearer understanding of the forcing and/or feedback mechanisms involved. The committee has specifically requested that you use the most recent available calendar year's NASA AIRS (Atmospheric Infared Sounder) Aqua satellite data in your preparations. The products of your AIRS data visualizations should be included in your report.

Comprehensive
Your team has been asked to assist in the preparation of a summary report about the role of water vapor on climate change. This report will be provided to members of a Congressional climate policy committee. Your part of the report is needed to help committee members understand how pronounced temperature variations (increasing and/or decreasing) in specific areas correlate with changes in water vapor concentrations and the mechanisms involved. The interrelationships between water vapor and surface temperatures should be clearly documented in your earth system analysis. You may choose to analyze data from either an area that shows decreasing surface temperatures or one with increasing surface temperatures, but in either case, the committee has specifically requested that you base your analysis on the most recent available decadal NASA AIRS (Atmospheric Infared Sounder) Aqua satellite data. The products of your AIRS data visualizations should be included in your report.

 

Date: 1/28/2011

Scenario Images:

Water Vapor Concentrations for May 2009
May 2009 map of total precipitable water vapor - the amount of water vapor that can potentially fall as precipitation. The highest concentrations are in equatorial regions where higher temperatures result in higher concentrations of water vapor. Image: NASA



Visualization of Atmospheric Water Vapor June - November 2005
This is a still image from a visualization that shows changes in water vapor concentrations from June to November 2005. Full animation. Image: NASA



Resources:

 

AIRS - Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (Cycle A)
This site contains information, images, maps and animations related to data collected fromt the AIRS satellite. Data sets include temperature and concentration of CO2, CO, ozone, water vapor, dust, methane and SO2.

 

Greenhouse Gases - FAQs (Cycle A)
This website is from the National Climatic Data Center and provides a good summary of the different greenhouse gases.

 

The Greenhouse Effect and Greenhouse Gases (Cycle A)
This site has an excellent review of the greenhouse effect and the different greenhouse gases, including water vapor.

 

Water Vapor and Climate from NASA AIRS (Cycle A)
This article describes the use of AIRS data in exploring the role of water vapor in climate processes. Some significant findings are provided and a link to additional findings is included.

 

Water Vapor in Europe Enhancing Greenhouse Effect (Cycle A)
An article summarizing recent research that suggests that enhancement of the greenhouse effect over Europe is due to increasing water vapor concentrations.

 

Water Vapor in the Stratosphere (Cycle A)
A brief news story on advances in knowledge about the role of water vapor in the stratosphere and global climate change.

 

Giovanni - The Bridge Between Science and Data (Cycle B)
Giovanni is an acronym for the GES-DISC (Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center) Interactive Online Visualization ANd aNalysis Infrastructure. This site offers a portal to an incredible array of Earth systems data (including AIRS data). As a cautionary note - when using this site it is recommended that the user carefully frames their research question(s), especially the type of data and regional and time windows of interest.

 

NASA Giovanni Primer (Cycle B)
NASA's Giovanni can be used to create visualizations of AIRS water vapor and surface temperature data. Specific time frame and location maps can be created and downloaded for comparisons and analysis. NOTE: Giovanni provides more up to date data for analysis and direct comparisons than some other NASA data visualization tools.

 

New Scientist - Water Vapor vs. Carbon Dioxide (Cycle B)
This brief article discusses the importance of water vapor and carbon dioxide as greenhouse gases.

 

NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (Cycle B)
A detailed website that contains background information and recent work on all components of the earth system.

 

Stratospheric Water Vapor and Global Warming (Cycle B)
This article on the Scientific American website discusses recent research on stratospheric water vapor concentrations and the role in the leveling of global warming.

 

Water vapor and warming slowdown (Cycle B)
This website contains an article that discusses recent research on the potential role of stratospheric water vapor concentrations in the slow down of global warming.

 

Simulation of Greenhouse Effect (Cycle C)
Set up and instructions for using a data logger to examine the greenhouse effect for different gases. Instructions are specifically for CO2 and air but can be adjusted to include water vapor.

 

Water Vapor Circulation on Earth (Cycle C)
This simulation from the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows the circulation of water vapor around the Earth over the course of a year. Additional animations are avaliable from NASA GOES satellites.

 

Will Runaway Water Warm the World (Cycle C)
This Earth Observatory website provides a detailed article on the changes of humidity that may occur in the atmosphere as a result increasing temperatures associated with climate change.

 

Sample Investigations:

 

Exploring the relation between water vapor and precipitation (Cycle A)
In this investigation students develop maps of stratospheric and tropospheric water vapor concentration and precipitation for a specific month and year. Inferences about the distribution of water vapor and the relation between water vapor and ground precipitation can be made.
Difficulty: intermediate

 

Water Cycle Activities for Elementary School Students (Cycle A)
This website contains a large number of activities for elementary school-aged students.
Difficulty: beginner

 

Diurnal Temperature Changes and Water Vapor Content (Cycle B)
In this classroom activity students exam temperature and humidity differences between two different days to evaluate the relationship between temperature maximums and humidity levels. This activity requires downloading some free software but can also be conducted using other programs.
Difficulty: intermediate

 

Factors of the Greenhouse Effect (Cycle B)
This simple activity provides a rich experience for students to analyze the factors that impact the degree of warming due to the greenhouse effect, including the role of water vapor.
Difficulty: beginner

 

GLOBE Water Vapor Measurement (Cycle C)
To complete this activity the school should become involved in the GLOBE program. During this activity, students measure the amount of precipitable water vapor and record the data to the GLOBE site. This activity requires a calibrated GLOBE/GIFTS water vapor instrument.
Difficulty: intermediate

 

Stella Climate Model (Cycle C)
This website provides an opportunity for students and teachers to use a system dynamics program to evaluate the global energy balance including the potential feedback role of changes in water vapor concentrations. Requies either having the Stella II software or downloading a demo version.

Difficulty: advanced

 

 

Standards:

  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/nses/html/overview.html#content The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
    • K-12 UNIFYING CONCEPTS AND PROCESSES
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Evidence, models, and explanation
    • GRADES 5-8 CONTENT STANDARDS
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Properties and changes of properties in matter
        • Transfer of energy
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
    • GRADES 9-12 CONTENT STANDARDS
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
    • THE WORLD IN SPATIAL TERMS
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
    • PHYSICAL SYSTEMS
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
    • ENVIRONMENT AND SOCIETY
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • How physical systems affect human systems
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From http://www.iste.org and http://www.edtech.sandi.net/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=349&Itemid=229
    • TECHNOLOGY PRODUCTIVITY TOOLS
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use productivity tools to collaborate in constructing technology-enhanced models, prepare publications, and produce other creative works.
    • TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH TOOLS
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
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