Earth Science: Putting the Puzzle Together
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?
The elementary school student questioning if El Niño occurs anywhere besides the Pacific Ocean. The researcher investigating connections between Arctic ozone depletion and global climate change. The citizen scientist interested in how changing land cover and use affects animal migration patterns. And the businessperson projecting future needs for harvest, delivery and storage of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all connected by their curiosity about Earth system processes. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.
For Cynthia Rosenzweig, disciplines such as weather, climate and ornithology are all pieces of a big puzzle: earth science. Ever since her fifth-grade teacher, Jean Clancy, began to teach her students about earth and ecosystem processes, Rosenzweig has been putting the puzzle together, one piece at a time.
Back in elementary school, Rosenzweig and her classmates explored Clancy's nature exhibits and participated in activities that spanned the gamut from tracking weather and collecting and identifying plants, to taking walks in the forest to learn about the study of birds. Beyond keeping her students engaged in these different topics, Clancy -- whom Rosenzweig describes as "an environmental scientist in her own right" -- taught them a fundamental lesson about the interconnected nature of Earth system processes.
This lesson is still with her. Rosenzweig, who says she remains "astonished and riveted by the ecological richness and productivity demonstrated by all the life forms of our planet,” is now a senior research scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, housed in Columbia University in New York. There she leads the Climate Impacts Group, which focuses on the interaction of climate on systems and sectors important to human well-being. Her research delves into how climate change and climate extremes -- such as heat waves, floods and hurricanes -- affect the food we eat, the water we drink, the plants and animals we share the planet with, and the cities we live in.
In addition to research, Rosenzweig also has been involved in teaching and thinks that some of the skills translate to both disciplines: "In both research and teaching, the goal is to understand and explain processes clearly." With research becoming "much more action-oriented," teachers also engage in research projects with students. As both attempt to figure out the physical and biological processes under study, she says that students have new opportunities to understand how the Earth works for themselves.
Thinking back to that hands-on approach that made her science classes so successful when she was growing up, Rosenzweig says that "the main skill the research projects teach students is how to tease out the processes -- physical and biological -- that are operating on whatever system they are studying."
Conceiving these processes as part of a bigger puzzle is also the key to understanding climate. "Climate change is both a global issue and a regional one," she explains. The challenge is to connect the dots between the regional and global implications. Rosenzweig suggests that the way to help students do that is to get them involved in interesting projects at the regional scale and then link them to global processes. A student calculating how much carbon is stored in a local forest, for example, could use that opportunity to learn about the global carbon cycle. A project studying the vulnerability of a nearby wetland to many stressors can include how climate change is a factor. In turn, documenting if local birds are arriving and laying their eggs earlier can be linked to global temperature trends.
Viewing regional and global processes as linked is not just a matter of grasping how Earth works a little better. It also has to do with appreciating the role played by these processes in our lives. "We need to communicate that planetary processes are fundamental to the well-being of all living things on the planet, including human beings, and that without them Earth and its ecosystems, of which we are part of, would not be able to function," Rosenzweig says.
Earth scientists like her are helping deliver this message. To students, particularly girls, who now have great teachers like Jean Clancy teaching them to identify the pieces of the puzzle, Rosenzweig calls on them to keep going: "We need to work hard to encourage young women to become scientists and to make sure that they are then able to build lifelong careers."
Like Rosenzweig, they can join the ranks of earth scientists and, through teaching and research, help others like them put together the whole picture.
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Laura Delgado López/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies