NASA, PH scientists look into how pollutants affect local weather

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 03 2019 10:11 PM

NASA's "flying laboratory" - the P-3 Orion aircraft. NASA/Monica Vasquez Gonzalez

If there is one thing that farmers know best, it’s the season of planting. But what happens when the rains do not come as scheduled or as much as before?

Filipino farmers have grappled with this problem for several years. 

“Things aren’t the same,” farmers would say, leading scientists to wonder if such anecdotal observations hold true.

Because of this, scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US Naval Research Laboratory and the Manila Observatory started working together under The Clouds, Aerosol, and Monsoon Processes-Philippines Experiment (CAMP²Ex) to investigate how pollution and other aerosol particles are affecting rainfall in the Philippines.

“The hypothesis is rainfall patterns are changing in the Philippines. Yes. (But) why?” asked Dr. Jeffrey Reid, US Naval Research Lab mission scientist, during a CAMP²Ex forum at the Ateneo de Manila University on Thursday morning.

UNDERSTANDING AEROSOL

(From left to right) Event host Gretchen Ho, Dr. James Simpas of Manila Observatory, Dr. Hal Maring of NASA, Dr. Gemma Narisma of Manila Observatory, Dr. Jeffrey Reid of the US Naval Research Laboratory. Manila Observatory/Marco Ibañez

The group believes that aerosols — tiny particles in the air that come from natural or man-made sources — are key to understanding such changes in the region. Aerosols can be natural like fog, dust or sea salt. They can also be anthropogenic or man-made like haze, pollution or smoke.

Dr. Gemma Narisma, executive director of the Manila Observatory, explained that water droplets form around aerosol particles, which serve as “seeds.” “Your water droplets would start to form and it might bump into another water droplet and then it will join together and it can be heavy enough and it can rain. Or it might stay in the atmosphere and not rain,” she said.

However, not much is known about how exactly aerosols affect weather and climate in tropical countries like the Philippines.

“It’s a difficult place to observe,” Narisma said, citing cloud cover and other factors that hinder remote sensing or the scanning of the atmosphere using satellite or aircraft. “There’s a lot that the scientific community does not understand because of the lack of observations.”

Factoring aerosols in weather and climate models is important because of increasing pollution and urbanization. 

“The Philippines gets biomass burning (due to forest fires and the like) from Indonesia, from Borneo and so on,” Narisma said. “We are in a place where we have tropical cyclones, monsoons and therefore we are affected by things that are really affecting our atmosphere aside from that admittedly we are developing fast.”

“And when you have a developing economy it’s easy to have a lot of pollution being emitted, aerosols, particulates,” she said. “We have not really been too aware of the fact that those can affect our atmosphere, can affect clouds.”

Narisma said getting observation data pertaining to such phenomenon could improve weather and climate models of the Philippines.

FIELD PHASE

After five years of preparation, NASA was finally able deploy to the Philippines its P-3 Orion aircraft and LearJet 35. For six weeks starting August 25, the two aircraft flew all over the country to get various measurements and samples.

This field phase of the CAMP²Ex will end this week as scientific instruments from both aircraft have collected terabytes worth of data from the atmosphere.

Dr. Roelof Bruintjes, Lear Flight scientist from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, said the dataset they gathered “is very unique” because some of the instruments have never before been flown in such aircraft, which Narisma called “flying laboratories.”

“We have more instruments on the P-3 than it ever had on it, ever before,” explained Dr. Hal Maring, who is NASA’s program scientist. “And I did that intentionally because in order to understand this very complex weather, climate system here in the Maritime Continent (Southeast Asia), you have to measure a lot of different things because they all (have an) impact.”

Maring said they are very thankful to the Philippine government, especially to the air traffic control as they were allowed to conduct complicated flight maneuvers as they flew into clouds to collect samples.

“We have flown down low, up high, race tracks, curtain walls. And that’s a burden for air traffic control and they have been fantastic,” Maring said. “They’re even letting us do a near approach at the Manila airport.”

During the forum held at Ateneo, the scientists and researchers recalled their exciting experiences onboard the P-3 and the LearJet.

They called the turbulence experienced by passengers of commercial planes “mild” compared to the bumpiness they experienced while diving through the clouds, which they measured for precipitation, chemistry and other factors.

The Manila Observatory team with the P-3 Orion aircraft. NASA/Susan McFadden

FUTURE STUDIES

After the field phase ends next week, the scientists will then have to prepare the data, which will take another six months.

“Once it’s in a NASA data archive it’s freely available to anyone,” Maring said.

“The scientists are now free to analyze that data and do modelling with it.”

He said they already have funding allotted for research in the next five years, which he considers “the most intensive period of data analysis.”

He hopes the data will be good enough that it can be used for comparison 20 or 30 years later.

Maring said their experiment is expected to result in “better predictions of weather and better predictions of climate.”

“And that has very practical applications as well. Anything from agriculture to architecture,” he said. “If you’re building buildings you don’t think about 2 years, you think about 50 years because that’s a building’s lifetime.”

Narisma said the Manila Observatory, a Jesuit scientific research institution, is also interested in learning more about the composition of clouds that form in the Philippines. 

“We haven’t really sampled our clouds. What are the droplets (made of)? And the microphysics, cloud physics. Are they half water, half ice?” she said. “When we look at our models we can look theoretically what the phases are and so on but we don’t have any observations we can compare it with. Now we do.”

Narisma said she is looking forward to the many studies that can now be generated through the data they have collected. "I am very excited about that because this will tell us more about our region, about the Philippines."

 

CLIMATE CHANGE AND TRUTH

Meanwhile, Maring explained that what makes CAMP²Ex even more important is how it looks into earth systems as a whole through the many instrument packages used.

“Really the earth systems is a system of systems…biosphere, the oceans. Those all work together and affect conditions or the environment we live in,” Maring said. “Human beings, we’ve discovered, have the ability through their activities to affect pretty significantly and on a global scale that system of systems.”

“What we are trying to do is get a better understanding of how those systems fit together and work together so that we can avoid doing things that make our life on earth problematic,” he said.

US Embassy public affairs counselor Philip Roskamp said the data from CAMP²Ex will help scientists all over the world “improve climate modeling and forecasting to better assess the impacts of climate change and land use.”

“The findings made here on this project will spur greater international collaboration to protect the Philippines and all other vulnerable regions in the world from the worst effects of unpredictable and intense weather,” he added.

Roskamp and Ateneo de Manila University President Fr. Jett Villarin said CAMP²Ex is all about the “truth.”

“We are here because we are a collective, a community in search for the truth. Truth that needs to come out because of so many lies in the world today,” Villarin, who is also a scientist and among those who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in his speech at the Ateneo event.

“We have to support the scientific community’s search for truth,” Roskamp said in agreement. “Based on truth we can make good policy.” 

Amid international pressure to address global warming, Filipino climate experts have been calling for more research on the specific effects of climate change in the Philippines in the hopes of shaping the government’s long-term development strategy.