What Color is the Sky?: Engaging Students as Atmospheric Scientists through Aerosol Observations

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Monday, 5 January 2015
Jessica Taylor, NASA Langley, Hampton, VA; and L. Chambers, M. Pippin, S. A. Crecelius, and K. Damadeo

Handout (683.5 kB)

What color is the sky? This simple question can spark in-depth scientific discovery about atmospheric conditions. Most of us would simply answer that the sky is blue - but look up. The sky is not always a deep blue color. Through various citizen science programs, individuals can learn how atmospheric conditions, such as humidity, and aerosol concentrations impact our sky conditions.

NASA Langley Research Center's Science Directorate, supports various programs to promote citizen science observations. Several programs include sky conditions, or aerosols, observations. “Measurement” requirements in these programs range from basic observations of sky color and haze to more complex measurements using hand-held instruments that measure aerosol concentrations. This poster will highlight the aerosol observation requirements of two international citizen science programs, GLOBE and S'COOL. A preview of the sunrise/sunset observations supporting SAGE III/ISS will also be displayed. Instrument inter-comparison studies, performed by NASA summer student interns, will be presented as well, showcasing the comparison of three different hand-held instruments to our onsite AERONET sensor.

One reason to promote citizen science observations of sky conditions is because the public is genuinely interested in air quality. Air quality-focused news stories are common. Many of these news features focus on specific events that have a negative impact on air quality such as wildfires, volcanic ash, or extreme smog from vehicle traffic. The public is becoming more knowledgeable about air quality issues both locally and globally, and more interested in how air quality can impact health. As atmospheric scientists, this provides us with a rich opportunity to capitalize on the public interest and engage them in authentic data collection. This direct engagement not only allows the public, both students and adults, the opportunity to learn more about air pollution and atmospheric science, but also helps them appreciate the practice of science. Many citizen science programs directly engage scientists who are currently active in the field of study with the observers. These programs also serve to inform the citizen scientists about how more rigorous scientific studies are conducted. For example, the CERES S'COOL program matches sky observations to satellite overpass times (for Aqua, Terra, CALIPSO, CloudSat, and NPP) to compare resulting measurements. The GLOBE Program engages various NASA satellites as partners with the teacher and student observation community. An upcoming sky observation program is in development by NASA's SAGE III on the International Space Station. This mission is scheduled to launch in 2016 and they are planning to engage citizen scientists in sky observations at sunrise and sunset to mimic the aerosol observations made by their instrument. Another upcoming NASA mission is TEMPO, designed to study atmospheric pollution. This mission is engaging university students in instrument inter-comparison research so that students can then use hand-held instruments to ground truth data collected by the instrument once in space. Given the broad range of existing programs and planned space missions informing our understanding of Earth's atmospheric conditions, particularly air quality, now is a perfect time to incorporate citizen science observations of sky conditions into atmospheric outreach.