Oceanography with altitude

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Professor George Born founded the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at CU-Boulder in 1985. Born is pictured in front of a mural painted by artist Cy Hundley that depicts some of the spacecraft that he has worked on during his career.
Through their combined knowledge and experience, the CCAR oceanography group has developed a wide variety of tools to assist weather and climate forecasters. William Emery and Robert Leben are shown talking with George Born.

Rocky Mountain oceanography…sounds like a contradiction in terms, you say? There’s something about Colorado’s Front Range that has attracted a number of scientists interested in the world’s oceans.

Take for example, the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research (CCAR) in the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, which has been mapping the world’s oceans using data from altimetric satellites for more than 25 years. The center was founded by Professor George Born, an aerospace engineer and member of the National Academy of Engineering, who launched his career designing lunar orbits for the Apollo missions in the late 1960s.

Born spent 13 years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on a host of satellite missions including Mariner 9, Viking 1 and 2, Seasat, TOPEX/Poseidon, and the Jason series, joint missions with the French space agency CNES. His group was responsible for navigating the two Viking Mars orbiters along with Seasat, the first satellite to carry a suite of microwave sensors to study the world’s oceans. He was also the Seasat geophysical evaluation manager responsible for demonstrating that all five sensors met specifications.

Born came to Boulder in 1985 and founded CCAR. The center involves 15 faculty and dozens of students dedicated to the study of astrodynamics and the application of satellites to science, navigation, and remote sensing of the Earth.

Four other faculty members—Robert Leben, William Emery, Lakshmi Kantha, and Steve Nerem—round out the oceanography group. Leben is a Colorado native who joined CCAR after earning his PhD in aerospace engineering at CU-Boulder in 1986. Leben, Kantha, and Nerem are aerospace engineers, while Emery has a PhD in physical oceanography from the University of Hawaii.

Leben, Emery, and Nerem bring satellite experience, working on different aspects of the TOPEX/Poseidon mission and other NASA projects over the last two decades.

Kantha came to CCAR from the Navy Oceanographic and Atmospheric Research Laboratory. There, he assisted the U.S. Navy in modeling of the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm and helped to develop and apply ocean forecast models to other regions of U.S. strategic interest. In addition to his modeling work, Kantha is an expert on turbulence and turbulent mixing in the oceans, and he collaborates with oceanographers at the Institute for Marine Research in Venice, Italy.

Nerem was recruited to CCAR in 2000, after he worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and then taught at the University of Texas for several years. Now associate director of CCAR and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, Nerem is an internationally recognized expert on sea level rise. He is participating in writing the Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, due to be published in 2013.

Through their combined knowledge and experience, the CCAR oceanography group has developed a wide variety of tools to assist weather and climate forecasters, as well as to supply crucial information to off-shore oil rigs, cruise ships, the U.S. military, and various other navigators.

“A lot of people have used our products in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Leben, whose primary expertise is in satellite altimetry and its application to ocean circulation monitoring. “The products show people how to avoid the eddy fields and make use of the Loop Current to achieve their purpose.”

Altimeter satellites, such as Jason 1 and 2, and the European Space Agency satellite ENVISAT, provide real-time information about ocean height that can save ship operators time and money, and possibly avert disaster as well. Geostationary satellite radiometer data provides further information about sea surface temperatures that is useful in predicting storms.

In 2005, Born and Leben led efforts to chart Hurricane Katrina and show how its wind speeds increased dramatically as it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current. Later, they mapped the ocean circulation affecting the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in near real-time during the disaster, and provided information to forecasters showing the low probability that the spill would exit the Gulf.

El Niño events, which cause extensive ocean warming, and the impacts of climate change are also of great interest. CCAR researchers derive data from satellite measurements and historical observations that can help to improve climate models.

Nerem has participated in numerous studies taking stock of the Earth’s melting land ice. These studies show that global sea level is rising and the shape of the Earth is actually changing as the mass moves toward the equator.

Emery, who serves on two German and two Italian teams studying ocean conditions with synthetic aperture radar imagery, is involved in research areas aimed at making climate models more accurate for coastal zones. He was elected an AGU fellow this year for advances in the remote sensing of ocean surface phenomena, including sea surface temperature variations and ocean surface currents.

He also has helped to develop processing hardware for weather satellites and studies high-resolution satellite imagery for detecting urban change and mapping disaster effects. And he has applied highand moderate-resolution satellite imagery to the study of terrestrial vegetation.

With all that going on, oceanography is alive and well in the Rocky Mountains.

>Learn more at ccar.colorado.edu

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