Scientists of Tomorrow Off to Fast Start
Scientists of today are working hard to study and respond to the environmental, economic and societal challenges posed by Earth's changing climate. But it is the scientists of tomorrow who will soon bear the responsibility of tackling these challenges using the latest tools and technology. Three young scientists are already off to a fast start.

Gwyneth Glissmann, Alex Heeb and Scott Elder are the authors of recent studies combining creative thinking and effective use of NASA satellite data to better understand Earth's changing climate. Each of the three is a recent recipient of the Thacher Scholars Award, given annually by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, or IGES, to secondary school students demonstrating the best use of geospatial technologies or data to study Earth.

A map showing arctic sea ice extent

This image shows the arctic sea ice extent as of July 14, 2009. The white area shows the area of ocean covered with at least 15 percent ice. Glissmann used similar data in her project to show that arctic sea ice is decreasing faster than predicted by climate models. Image Credit: NSDIC

Glissmann, from Boulder, Colo., captured second place and $1,000 in the 2009 Thacher contest with her paper, "Analyzing Arctic Solar Flux and Ice Extent Loss Projections." She used data from NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites to show that arctic sea ice is decreasing faster than predicted by climate models and, consistent with projections made by NOAA's National Snow and Ice Data Center, could disappear by 2035.

The study also found a lack of correlation between the amount of solar radiation hitting the Arctic Ocean surface, as measured by NASA's Aqua satellite, and the amount of sea ice melt. Glissmann's results suggest that floating highly reflective platforms on the ocean surface would not be effective in reducing ice melt.

"Through my project, I learned that science requires not only perseverance but also passion, enthusiasm, curiosity and the willingness to learn," said Glissmann, a 12th-grader during the 2008-09 school year. "No matter who you are, whether you are a Nobel Prize winner or a graduate student ... there is always something new to learn."

Heeb, from Chaffee, Mo., earned third place and $500 with "Geospatial Tools and Data in the Determination of Health Impact of Burning Agricultural Crop Stubble." The study showed a statistically significant increase in emergency room respiratory diagnoses on days when air pollution levels were higher because of wheat stubble burning in two southeastern Missouri counties.

To conduct the study, Heeb used data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instrument on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites and from NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites to help locate crop fires. He used aerial photos to confirm the accuracy of ground-level measurements of acreage burned. He also used a portable monitor to measure particulate matter levels in the air near and away from burn sites. Information on emergency room diagnoses was obtained from three area hospitals.

"Probably the hardest part was the logistics. As I quickly discovered, even though I had carefully planned the study, it was extremely difficult to keep up with fires burning over an area the size of St. Louis," said Heeb, a 12th-grader during the 2008-09 school year. "While the project was difficult, it was also a great deal of fun. While my favorite part was the field work, seeing a solid correlation between ER visits and pollution on the computer screen was also greatly thrilling."

Elder, who recently completed his first year at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, garnered second place and $1,000 in both the 2007 and 2008 Thacher contests. In his 2008 winning entry, "Impact of Urbanization on Creek Ecology and Pollution," Elder used NASA and IKONOS satellite imagery to examine the influence of urbanization on the size, flow and vegetation of creeks in the Chino hills watershed, and to identify locations from which to collect water samples. Water sample analysis showed the effects of pollution on water quality, clarity and velocity.

Elder says the Thacher contest and working with NASA data helped him decide to major in environmental geography rather than environmental biology. "The classes I'm taking for my environmental geography major focus on the environment as a whole, and in the back of my mind I always have the different satellite images of Earth I learned about from NASA while working on my Thacher projects," Elder said.

The Thacher Scholars Award was founded in honor of former IGES board member Peter S. Thacher, an internationally recognized leader in promoting the use of satellite remote sensing. During a distinguished career, he served as deputy director of the U.N. Environment Program, as an advisor to NASA and, at the time of his death in 1999, as president of the Earth Council Foundation-U.S.

For more information about the Thacher Scholars Award and past winners, visit http://www.strategies.org/ThacherScholars.

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies