Posts in: PC431

The final stretch…

We’ve moved on from atmospheric physics to atmospheric chemistry, and have spent our time looking at different constituents of our atmosphere and how they get there.  One interesting (and complicated) reaction we have focused on is ozone formation and depletion in various layers of the atmosphere.  In the stratosphere, the second layer of the atmosphere, ozone is incredibly important, and shields out UV light which can be dangerous to humans. We learned about the combination of reactions and circumstances that contributes to the ‘ozone hole’ over Antarctica.  Most in our class were struggling with the material, but we all felt a little better about it after our professors reminded us that this research won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the 1990s.

While lack of ozone in the stratosphere is cause for concern, the presence of ozone in the troposphere, the closest layer of atmosphere to the ground, is equally troubling.  When in the troposphere, ozone can cause health problems and contribute to the greenhouse effect.  Logically, then, regulations should be in place to limit the presence of ozone in the troposphere.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy.  When we took a closer look at the science behind the formation of ozone in the lower atmosphere, we discovered two main types of pollutants that produced ozone.  Oddly, in some settings, decreasing one type of emission will actually make the air quality worse in that area. BUT, those same decreased emissions would make air quality in an area downwind better. Different emissions regulations are needed in different places, but this would require immense cooperation and huge improvements in technology. So we get into this conundrum about how we really can regulate in a way that is realistic and effective for everyone.

This wasn’t the only bit of policy we conquered as a class. We also had group projects about converting the closed Templeton Gap Landfill (right here in Colorado Springs) to a landfill gas energy production site.  The gas emitted from landfills can be dangerous to us and to our environment, and converting it into energy has been viewed as a positive solution. The class divided into groups that all tackled one science, policy, or logistical issue surrounding this idea.  We then presented our findings to the rest of the class, giving everyone a comprehensive view of the topic.  My group looked at the feasibility of making this business, and for any entrepreneurs out there, I can tell you that it is very much doable.

We have been able to take all of the material we’ve learned and make it incredibly applicable. I think this class, more so than any other class I’ve had, has been easy to make connections and understand the importance of what we are learning. It certainly has lived up to its standard of being a difficult course, but it also has been eye opening and fascinating in many ways.  That being said, we do have a daunting atmospheric chemistry final on Wednesday, so don’t expect to be hearing from me.


Balloon Madness

Reviews are in. Pictures are loaded. Results: weather is looking beautiful to put it lightly (if indicative of a changing climate). Weather balloons are a critical to our understanding of the structure and behavior of the atmosphere. Without the twice daily weather balloon launches which take place simultaneously at over 800 sites around the world, we would not have the week’s weather predictions, any understanding of how the troposphere (the lowest level of the atmosphere, the part which impacts us the most) is structured, or have an inkling of important global weather patterns.  Weather balloons (as pictured here) are made up of several (if deceptively simple) parts. Our six ft balloon!The most obvious of which is the giant balloon. Our balloon was one of the smallest options out there starting at ground level a tiny 6 feet wide, and as it rises up in the atmosphere and the temperature and pressure drops, it will expand up to 25 feet. Hanging on a long string attached to the bottom of the balloon (around 700 feet of string to avoid the shadow of the balloon) is the information gathering device. I have included a picture of this strange instrument which fits into a human hand and is surprisingly light. The device, called a radiosonde, collects: temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and barometric pressure. This is the simplest of sondes used to collect daily information.

Attached to a weather balloon- measures: temperature, pressure, wind speeds, wind direction,and humidity.

Sondes can vary in size and purpose. A couple of examples would be the well protected versions they drop into the eyes of storms, or the huge telescope they sent up to see the sun’s corona (which was the size of an average car and weighed three tons. But we were sending up the most basic model. We all took turns holding onto the balloon to get the chance to take funny pictures and feel the pull of our six feet balloon.

A few fun and fascinating tidbits about weather balloons:

-The radiosondes are rarely collected once they are sent up. Imagine all of those balloons sent up twice daily, worldwide, just falling all over and never being collected. One: that is a lot of plastic and balloon material. My mother used to yell at me when I would let go of my balloons and told me I was killing birds and other small creatures. Two: could you imagine seeing one of those fall in your backyard with no indication of what it is? I think aliens. Which leads us to the next tidbit.

Our weather balloon soaring (rapidly!) off into the troposphere

-There are some funny stories about civilians seeing radiosondes in the sky or falling and these sightings have led to many UFO and government conspiracy stories. So if you see one of these funny boxes in your backyard, be assured it is just a weather device.

-We are in a global helium shortage! Helium supplies are finite (as most of our other natural resources) and we are using it at a fast rate (again twice daily at over 800 sites worldwide, and these are no birthday balloons). There have been rumors of limiting uses of helium, so the next time you buy some party balloons, consider choosing air over helium.

Overall our class LOVED launching a real weather balloon, and I would recommend placing holding a giant balloon on your bucket list for sure.

EV431Air and our weather balloon.



Science from the Roof of Barnes

For our labs this week, the class is divided into different lab groups, so groups rotate between the three labs to experiment with all of them in small groups. On our first day, yesterday, my group started analyzing air pollution right on campus.  Little did I know, the is an air filterer on the roof of Barnes.  We placed a fiberglass filter in the odd, mailbox shaped machine, and then a vacuum pulls air through the filter.  The vacuum runs overnight to get 24 hours of air filtered.  The filter we placed yesterday will be analyzed by a different group today.

We analyzed filter that underwent the same process a couple days earlier. In order to do that, we had to extract all of the particulate matter that was collected from the filter and create solutions from them that could be analyzed. We diluted them and used two machines to thoroughly mix the solutions.  The solutions were put into vials that can be analyzed with ion chromatography and XRF. This processes will tell us what types of ions and other elements (like metals) are in the air. One great thing about this class is how applicable everything we are learning is. Our labs don’t focus on abstract concepts, they focus on the weather and the air that is all around us.  No one in our class ever has to ask “Well, when could I ever use this in real life? Why does this matter?” because we are using class material in ways that directly pertain to our lives.

Today in class, we learned how a cold front actually effects weather. Of course, watching the news or checking the weather online had given me the terminology and awareness of cold fronts, and that they typically mean clouds and perhaps storms, but now I understand how those cold fronts cause the weather that they do.  All of us had a moment where it clicked, where we were able to justify what we’ve experienced in our lives with the science behind it.  It seems like that’s happening more and more frequently for us these days. As an assignment over the weekend, we had to take a mindful walk (or run, hike, or ski) and really think about the weather around us. It didn’t have to be scientific or quantitative in any way, but we were supposed really absorb our environment, however we felt was appropriate. When we talked about it in the morning, many of our classmates talked about ‘nerding out’ as they had to describe to a friend why a particular weather phenomenon was occurring, or what it meant about our speed traveling around the Earth if the air was calm for a moment. So if you see us around campus, you’ll have to excuse us and our excitement about the weather, but it’s pretty incredible when all of the sudden you finally understand the world around you.



“Hey guys test this week, pressure is on…”

Things to do while attempting to make NO and NO2 measurements during chemistry lab:

1) Take measurements from the magic so called NOx box

2) Make up air puns

A selection:

“Whoever says this class is easy is full of hot air” – Nico

“When this class is done I’ll be on cloud 9” – Katie

“Don’t worry guys, we’ll breeze through this class” -Nico

Well we were all walking on air by the time we were done with the lab, hopefully a few giggles for you readers as well.

Anyways, apart from trying to make the most of our lab time, we were also taking some interesting measurements about the air quality near Uintah St on the north side of campus. Our measuring tool was a rather bulky machine called a NOx box which measured the concentrations of NO and NO2 in the air where we were standing. We pulled the box along with us (with the warning that the worst thing we could do today was to drop the NOx box, causing some amount of stress at least for me) and positioned ourselves on the street. While this might sound like a risky things do, especially if you have ever tried to cross Uintah, I promise we were taking safety precautions. We took measurements every 5 ft from the edge of the road to 50 ft to see how the air quality changed. End message: try not to hang out on street corners, the air quality is better just a few feet away.

Well, that is it for now.

The Wild World of Atmospheric Physics

Fifth block always feels like a bit of a whirlwind, as we all frantically try to get out of vacation mode and back into our normal role as students.  But never have I experienced a fifth block quite this intense. I am in what will almost certainly be the hardest class of my CC career – Air: Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry.  So far the course has lived up to its (somewhat intimidating) reputation established by previous EV students.

We have had a lot of challenging work and a demanding schedule, but we are learning fascinating material and getting the opportunity to see real world applications of what we are learning. As Nicole mentioned, we launched a giant, six-foot wide weather balloon with the help of an engineer from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). And yesterday, we experienced first hand the work that goes into reporting common weather indices such as dew point and humidity. We got to take our lab outside on the quad to try out the instrumentation and methods.  So even though we’re all in a grueling class, we’re still able to enjoy the outdoors – and the glorious sunny weather we’ve been having!

We continue on with physics for now, but in the next week we’ll be moving on to Atmospheric Chemistry.  Word around the lab is that we’ll be performing an analysis of the particulate matter (a dangerous type of air pollution) content in Colorado Springs.  As we forge on, we learn more and more about the air we’ve so casually been relying upon our entire lives.

7:30 AM -TBD

If you were under the impression that being on the block plan means that you have class from 9AM-12PM and then you are free and wild, please be aware that, for science majors, this is rarely true. The block plan means that there is no procrastinating or class three times a week, and then lab maybe twice a week, or even class, lab and then some free time. When you are in a 400 level EV/Physics class, there is no rest for the weary. For examples, I have been working since 7:30 this morning, and am still sitting in my seat in the same classroom trying to complete last night’s homework which no one was able to finish, our lab, and tomorrow’s homework. It is inherent in the level of this course (this most difficult science course for an environmental science major) that time, energy, brain power, and possibly your soul will be called upon to solve this atmospheric physics problems, and if it wasn’t for the few mathematically brilliant, wonderfully ingenious students in this class, I would be here all night. Thankfully, I am close to completing the lab, so maybe I will be out of here by 9 and have some social interaction with normal people.

So what have we learned so far? Well by far the coolest thing we have done is the balloon launch, but I am afraid I must hold out until I find a second to upload the pictures to tell that tale. I will instead explain how difficult something we take for granted is. Temperature. You wake up, check your phone, computer, thermometer (if you are still cool enough to have one outside), weather channel, whatever to obtain the information you need to get dressed today. Well some person obtained that data and ran some incredibly complex math to confirm that they do in fact have the correct temperature outside. While I doubt they do this by hand anymore, I just did, and let me tell you it is long and there are many places to go wrong. Here are some equations:

Ph = P0 [ 1 – (mgh/CpT00] ^ Cp/R          AND         1/Tb0 – 1/Tbh = (R/deltaH) ln(Ph/P0)

OK so really they don’t look that bad, and really if you have any physics or calculus under your belt (recently, this is key) you can probably figure out where we are heading. Basically solving these two equations gives us the boiling point of water in Colorado, which you should recall is above sea level so water boils faster here (do to the change in pressure). SO if you boil some water, you need to correct for this difference in boiling point. This correction is important to check that the temperatures you are measuring are correct, and some machine somewhere probably runs equations like this all the time to ensure that the weather person isn’t lying to us (with some margin of error, I mean have you experienced the wild weather of CO?!) Well that was my rant for today, hopefully some pictures and fun stories about applied atmospheric physics tomorrow when I calm down a bit.

Have a great evening.

Welcome to EV431: The Class Where We Launch A Weather Balloon

Today was day two of EV431 Air: Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. The classroom for me is a familiar one for me, and I am sure for most of the other students taking this course, since most of us are Environmental Science majors and have wandered the same rooms in Tutt Science for a few years now. This class is, however, one of the pinnacle Environmental Science courses, signified by the 400 status, and will be one of the last courses I take before I graduate this spring. Which reminds me I should probably introduce myself and not remain the mysterious blogger of EV431. My name is Nicole Gillett, and I am a senior Environmental Science major here at Colorado College. I have taken a multitude of wonderful EV classes and dabbled in a variety of other subjects here and there, but I must admit I am excited for Air (and not just because the course title sounds like we are taking some mystic elements class). I bet Professor Barbara Whitten (one of our esteemed professors for this course along with Professor Mari Lee) doesn’t remember a specific day three years ago when I was in Introduction to Climate Change, my first EV course of my CC career, and she came in to give a guest lecture on clouds. She spoke of all the different types of clouds, where they form in the atmosphere, and what their properties where. I found it all rather magical (serious nerd status alert here), especially stratospheric cloud which form higher than most clouds in the stratosphere at extremely cold temperatures and so are made of ice crystals. They form wave like, rainbow colored ice clouds, very lovely. While I didn’t know much about atmospheric physics at the time (and admittedly still do not), the idea of clouds has fascinated me ever since (even though I learned later that certain kinds of stratospheric clouds contribute to the ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect).

Anyways this was my introduction post to EV 431 and tomorrow I will be posting about our big weather balloon launch. Here is one photo as a teaser.