Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences: Wikis

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The Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) is a research institute that is sponsored jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Contents

Quick facts

  • Established in 1967 as NOAA Joint Institute. Now the largest of 21 NOAA Cooperative Institutes.
  • Directed by Konrad Steffen.
  • Governed by a Council of Fellows, which serves as the institute's board of directors, sets overall policy and directions for CIRES, and recommends to the University and NOAA the appointment of the CIRES Director.
  • In 2005-2006, CIRES employed approximately 500 scientists and support staff.
  • CIRES scientists and faculty published over 500 scholarly papers during FY 2003.
  • CIRES Faculty have supervised the research of hundreds of students who have earned the Ph.D. degree. During 2005-2006, CIRES supported over 50 graduate students, 13 post doctoral associates, and 55 undergraduate students in support of research.
  • CIRES scientists have done field work throughout the world, from Antarctica to Greenland, from the Rocky Mountains to the Himalaya.
  • CIRES scientists and Fellows have won the National Medal of Science, had features in Antarctica named after them, and been appointed to presidential positions and named distinguished professors. CIRES Fellow John Birks, with Paul Crutzen, is credited with developing the "nuclear winter" theory. CIRES Fellow Susan Solomon played a leading role in the international effort to discover the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole.
  • CIRES is home to five established centers, which together represent historical and current thrusts within the CIRES research themes: Center for Limnology, Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, Center for the Study of Earth from Space, Climate Diagnostics Center, National Snow and Ice Data Center

CIRES' Six Research divisions

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Cryospheric and Polar Processes

Research focuses on the world's frozen regions and looks at climate change, sea ice, snow, glaciers, permafrost, and sea level rise.

Arctic climate. Arctic climate is rapidly changing, and this correlates with what scientists expect from global warming. However, because of the Arctic’s high latitude and seasonal exposure to solar light, this polar region also experiences substantial natural climate variability. CIRES researchers are working to discern the causes of Arctic climate change, while also assessing the impact Arctic warming will have on global climate systems. CIRES researchers monitor variations in temperature and precipitation by sampling snow and ice, tracking sea ice and permafrost coverage, and measuring glacial melt.

Ice sheets and glaciers. Ice sheets and glaciers advance and retreat in response to the climate. By studying the rate of growth or loss in ice mass, CIRES scientists are working to quantify the nature of present day climate variations. CIRES researchers also study the movement of ice sheets and glaciers in order to construct valuable climatological records of the past. The CIRES National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) maintains photographic records of the retreat of mountain glaciers in the United States and other mid-latitude regions.

Snow cover and snow hydrology. Seasonal snow cover, the largest component of the cryosphere, covers up to 33 percent of the earth’s total land surface and plays several important roles in the earth system. Snow’s whiteness, for example, reflects incoming solar radiation, affecting the temperature of the planet. CIRES researchers study how dust and other pollutants alter the reflective properties of snow. Snow also stores a great deal of freshwater in certain parts of the world, such as in the Rocky Mountain states and California, where snowmelt is a large source of drinking and irrigation water. CIRES researchers look at how warming global temperatures may impact Western U.S. water supplies.

Permafrost. In the cold regions of the earth, organic material is often frozen into the soil before it has a chance to fully decay. Observations show that this frozen soil layer, known as permafrost, is beginning to melt in many high-latitude regions. CIRES is interested in learning more about how permafrost melt will affect local hydrology and soil stability, as well as increase emissions of methane and other trace gases.

Environmental Biology

Research explores Earth's biosphere, in particular: ecosystem functions, biogeochemical cycles, global climate interactions, and disturbance regimes.

Water quality. Through the Center for Limnology, CIRES scientists research nutrient dynamics and food webs in lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Such work assists water managers in preserving natural aquatic ecosystems and maintaining safe drinking water supplies for Colorado communities.

Regional and global disturbances. Natural processes, such as wildfires and windstorms, and human activities, such as deforestation and changes in land use, alter ecosystems and landscapes. CIRES researchers explore the effects these disturbances have on the structure and function of ecosystems, and CIRES is developing quantitative methods that link spatial patterns and ecological processes over time. CIRES investigations have spanned the biogeochemical dynamics of woody plant encroachment in the U.S. Southwest, the ecological effects of habitat fragmentation due to urbanization, and ecological response to multiple disturbances in forest ecosystems. CIRES researchers are working to understand the scale and pace of these changes in terms of their influence on ecosystem health and sustainability.

Land–atmosphere exchanges. The biosphere determines the chemical makeup of Earth’s atmosphere. Living organisms, for instance, regulate atmospheric concentrations of oxygen and trace gases. Vegetation and soils, which are rich in microbes, are a reservoir for carbon. And plants also emit reactive volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ground-level ozone pollution. Through field campaigns, remote sensing, and laboratory experiments, CIRES scientists research global biogeochemical cycling and ecosystem controls over biophysical fluxes. Researchers are especially interested in understanding the nutrient balance of ecosystems and the influence of trace gas emissions from vegetation on global climate.

Environmental Chemistry

Research focuses on the production, transformation, and transport of atmospheric compounds, such as aerosols and ground-level ozone.

Climate forcing. Greenhouse gases—such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and nitrous oxide—trap heat radiation from our planet’s surface. To understand how human activities are changing Earth’s radiative energy balance, CIRES scientists measure the heat-absorbing properties and lifetimes of greenhouse gases and ozone. Ozone plays a particularly important role in controlling the overall chemistry of the atmosphere and the lifetimes of chemically active gases like methane. CIRES researchers investigate how the chemical composition of aerosols might influence the earth’s temperature. By examining how different aerosols reflect the sun’s radiation, the researchers are able to estimate how the aerosols affect the heat balance of the atmosphere.

Air quality. Ground-level ozone and aerosols are two major contributors to air quality problems. Through regional field campaigns, laboratory studies, and modeling investigations, CIRES researchers study the production, transformation, and transport of these air pollutants. CIRES' research has helped demonstrate that air pollution must be understood on local to regional levels and that flexible management strategies are critical. For instance, the most effective approach to improving air quality on a regional basis is often dependent on the balance between the natural and human-made sources of the oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds in that particular area. This type of information has spurred new strategies for managing large industrial point sources of pollution and controlling multiple-source pollution in cities like Houston, Texas.

Stratospheric ozone. When the ozone hole was first discovered over Antarctica, CIRES researchers played a key role in illuminating the chemical nature of the problem. Since then, CIRES has continued to monitor stratospheric ozone around the globe, to investigate the processes that can alter it, and to help develop safer chemical alternatives to CFCs—the main chemical culprit behind ozone depletion. A particularly active area of CIRES research concerns the connection between aerosols and the CFC-related chemical depletion of ozone. Ongoing laboratory measurements, field studies, and modeling allow CIRES to improve the accuracy of predictions concerning ozone layer recovery.

Environmental Observations, Modeling and Forecasting

Research follows an interdisciplinary approach to characterize and predict the state of the earth system using advanced modeling and tools.

Remote sensing. Remote sensing enables the study of earth system processes over large areas and in hard-to-access places. When it comes to measuring properties of the atmosphere, for example, remote sensing allows humans to capture information about an entire column of air nearly instantaneously. This is invaluable for tracking trace gases and pollutants, as well as for modeling temperature changes in the atmospheric column. Using this technology, CIRES researchers investigate the thermal structure of the middle and upper atmosphere and cloud formation at different heights. In other disciplines, CIRES scientists use remote sensing to monitor ice melt, seismic activity, and land use changes.

Measuring carbon and greenhouse gases. Because models and forecasts are only as good as the quality of the initial data input, CIRES scientists participate in global monitoring networks for carbon, greenhouse gases, ozone, and other atmospheric compounds. Through these networks the scientists collect information at the site (in situ) and also remotely. Measurements aboard unmanned aircraft systems, for instance, have greatly enhanced humans' ability to monitor difficult-to-reach places like the Arctic Ocean.

Global climate modeling. Models are exceptionally powerful tools for investigating complicated earth system processes, such as the sensitivity of the global climate to natural and manmade disturbances. One aspect of CIRES' modeling work focuses on understanding the sensitivity of large-scale Arctic weather patterns to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. CIRES researchers also look to understand what the likelihood is that these different synoptic weather patterns will actually occur. In other research, they use models to improve the representation of clouds and land-surface processes and to investigate the response of regional hydrology to global climate change.

Geophysical data stewardship. CIRES scientists work with their NOAA counterparts to maintain the world’s largest collection of seafloor data, space environment data, and historical tsunami data. CIRES also manages and stores geophysical observations taken from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. CIRES scientists build and maintain long-term archives for data acquired by NOAA observing systems. CIRES' data sets are used widely by scientists worldwide provide historical information for future generations of earth scientists.

Solid Earth Sciences

Research explores the processes that shape landscapes and alter Earth's gravitational field.

Geochemistry of mountains. Processes that build and erode mountains are diverse not always triggered by the collision or divergence of tectonic plates. CIRES researchers are involved in a major effort to discern the separate effects of the crust and upper mantle on western U.S. topography. They’re finding that many of the observed differences in western geology are a result of variations in the density or composition of the mantle. Mountain uplift and extension in the Sierra Nevada, for example, appears to be driven by the "drip" of hot and dense rock from the foundation of the mountain range.

Crustal deformation and mantle dynamics. Earth’s mantle extends from the top of the planet’s liquid core to the crust of its surface. CIRES scientists study this dynamic layer and its influence on plate tectonics and crustal deformation. Convection within the mantle is thought to occur at just a few centimeters per year, yet this motion causes continental plates to drift and collide, triggering earthquakes and fueling volcanic activity. CIRES researchers use seismology and geodesy to measure ground motion in places as far away as the Himalaya and as close as the Rocky Mountains. These tools allow us to map the deep structure of the earth and estimate future seismic hazards at plate boundaries.

Landscape evolution and climate. Earth’s surface is in constant motion. Processes ranging from catastrophic landslides to the gradual accumulation of sediment in floodplains shape the landscape and have multiple feedbacks with the atmosphere, lithosphere, and geosphere. CIRES scientists study the physics and chemistry of these surface processes to better understand their contribution to sculpting the earth’s varied topography. CIRES researchers also study the relationship between surface processes and regional climate. One area of CIRES research has focused on the uplift of the Himalaya and its impact on the initiation of the Asian monsoon cycle.

Gravity from space. Earth’s gravitational field changes in strength according to minor differences in surface topography and mass. Even water runoff after a rainstorm can temporarily alter Earth’s gravitational pull by changing the surface characteristics over a particular area. By taking highly resolved measurements of gravity from space, CIRES scientists are able to monitor changes in the distribution of Earth’s mass. They can apply this technology to track melting of continental ice sheets and follow the depletion of underground aquifers.

Weather and Climate Dynamics

Research focuses on observing global processes that create weather and climate, in part to improve short and long term forecasting.

Atmosphere–ocean interactions. Oceans play a key role in regulating the earth’s climate. This is partly because of inertia; oceans take longer to heat and cool than land. Scientists at CIRES are interested in studying how sea surface temperature changes affect weather phenomena and longer-term climate variability. CIRES scientists look at how variations in the temperature anomaly and location of El Niño events impact precipitation in different parts of the world.

Tropical convection. Atmospheric convection in the tropical regions is one of the main mechanisms of transporting solar energy from the equator to the polar regions of our planet. This pattern of warm air rising, cool air sinking is responsible for both the daily rainstorms typical of equatorial regions and heat transport away from the equator toward higher latitudes. CIRES researchers look at whether improving understanding of tropical convection will shed light on weather-climate connections, and they work to improve models that explain poleward transport of heat.

Connecting climate and weather. Traditionally, the atmospheric sciences have treated weather and climate separately. CIRES is moving toward a more unified study of these processes and wants to know how climate variations influence weather events and how weather patterns affect climate. CIRES scientists have already observed that weather events can shift the path of the jet stream and that changes in sea-surface temperatures influence hurricane intensity. By further studying these connections across time scales, CIRES researchers hope to improve long-term weather-climate forecasting abilities, especially for extreme events like droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes.

El Niño. For years, scientists have tracked the intensity of the El Niño Southern Oscillation by measuring the strength of the sea-surface temperature anomaly. El Niños occur when warmer ocean water wells up toward the eastern equatorial Pacific. But the strength of the temperature anomaly may not be the only important factor in predicting El Niño-related weather events. CIRES researchers found that the location of sea-surface warming appears to be just as critical. For instance, El Niños that develop near the central equatorial Pacific tend to cause drought during the Indian Monsoon, whereas warm waters near the eastern equatorial Pacific may have no impact on monsoon rains.

Collaborators

University colleagues

CIRES maintains partnerships with a dozen university departments. CIRES faculty teach normal course loads in their respective academic departments, and offer subjects as wide-ranging as cryospheric and polar processes and global climate modeling. CIRES faculty provide students with opportunities to explore subjects that span multiple disciplines and to gain hands-on research experience. CIRES faculty have supervised the research of hundreds of graduate students who have gone on to careers in engineering and environmental sciences. CIRES' campus setting facilitates collaboration with CU-Boulder academic departments and programs, as well as university-based institutes such as JILA, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

University Science Partners

  • Aerospace Engineering Sciences
  • Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences
  • Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering
  • Geography
  • Geological Sciences
  • Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology
  • Physics
  • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering

University Science Partners, Programs

  • Environmental Studies
  • Geophysics

NOAA partners

More than half of CIRES’ researchers work at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL). CIRES researchers there participate in all aspects of ESRL’s work. They study chemical and physical sciences, as well as analyze and monitor global systems. Other CIRES researchers collaborate with NOAA’s Space Environment Center and the National Geophysical Data Center.

Visiting fellows

Every year CIRES awards five to eight visiting fellowships to scientists from outside the University of Colorado at Boulder, affording scientists the to work jointly with CIRES researchers—both on campus and at NOAA—on collaborative endeavors. Since 1967, more than 220 visiting fellows have worked at CIRES. Visiting fellows contribute to research in climate system variability, geodynamics, planetary metabolism, observing earth systems, and regional and polar processes.

Science education, outreach activities

Graduate education

Commitment to education is an integral part of CIRES' mission. Every year CIRES faculty and scientists supervise the research of more than 60 graduate-level students. CIRES provide these students with the opportunity to experience professional-level research while complete their degrees. CIRES also offers a graduate research fellowship, which helps recruit students to CU-Boulder’s academic programs, as well as a certificate program in science and technology policy. CIRES also employs about 50 undergraduate students in research and administration.

Education outreach

CIRES' Education Outreach Program staff collaborate with CIRES researchers to help meet the educational needs of the Colorado community and beyond. These contributions include professional development work with k–12 educators from Colorado and around the country, long-term partnerships with local school districts, and development of teaching materials. All CIRES education outreach projects benefit from attention to science and inquiry-based teaching.

One of the programs is, Earthworks - Earth Systems Science for Secondary Teachers. Teachers from across the country are paired with research scientists to conduct field work for a week. Teachers learn field techniques from the scientists, while engaged in their own inquiry-based research. There are group discussions throughout the workshop on the best ways to incorporate inquiry-based experiences into the classroom. The program accepts both new and returning teachers. The summer session is held at Cal-Wood Education Center in Jamestown, CO.

Science policy research

The CIRES Center for Science and Technology Policy Research was established to conduct research, education, and outreach in response to an increased demand for "usable" scientific information. The center focuses on analyzing problems and decisions that have a scientific component or that deal with the structures and priorities of science itself. Center research has included the interpretation of global climate models and understanding decision-making in a nanotechnology lab. Center staff communicate their research to decision-makers through an online clearinghouse of climate science information; an active and widely read website; and a bi-monthly briefing of current activities. The center also hosts various workshops, public lectures, and forums at CU-Boulder and beyond.

Water resource management

Working directly with water resource managers at federal, state, and local levels, CIRES researchers aim to reduce societal vulnerabilities to climate variability. Through the Western Water Assessment [1], which is one of eight similar programs around the country, CIRES' experts in climate, water, law, and economics collaborate to improve long-term water planning in the Intermountain West. The assessment provides key information concerning climatic effects on water supply and demand, as well as regional modeling tools that help predict the relationships between shifts in climate, population growth, and water allocation.

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Environmental data

Scientific research produces large volumes of data. Whether from observations made in the field or measurements taken remotely by satellites above Earth, this scientific data forms the basis of the research that informs people about the planet and allows for continually improved understanding of the earth system. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) is a leading example of data management support at CIRES. Specialists at NSIDC process and manage cryospheric data by organizing, preserving, documenting, and distributing it, ensuring that data is reliably accessible to researchers both now and into the future.

Scientific instruments

CIRES’ Integrated Instrument Development Facility designs and constructs scientific instruments for CIRES, NOAA, and CU-Boulder. The facility specializes in metal, electronic, and glass work, as well as software design for data acquisition. Examples of instruments made on site include a portable ozone monitor, a multi-channel electron energy analyzer, a high-altitude frost-point hygrometer, and a controlled atmosphere flow system.

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