Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Seeing Climate Science with New Light

students with weather balloon
Climate Science student Jinhee Stupak prepares a weather balloon to measure the atmosphere with help from CEOAS doctoral student Kyle Niezdoga.

Every day, the climate system surrounds us, working behind the scenes to influence nearly all facets of our existence — from the food we grow to where we live. Yet, unless you go looking for it, the climate can seem hidden in plain sight. After all, the carbon cycle spins invisibly, and subtle shifts in greenhouse gas concentrations happen in the background of our busy lives.

One professor is aiming to bring climate science into view. David Noone, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, led an expedition across the diverse environment of Oregon to put climate science in the hands of students. With support from a Learning Innovation Grant, the course enabled a dozen undergraduates to make observations, handle high-tech instruments that can detect invisible light, conduct experiments, collect climate science data and observe textbook concepts in action.

"Climate science as a topic can be theoretical and, to be honest, there are some abstract concepts for newcomers," Noone says. "You can draw little cartoons on the blackboard, but it can appear separated from what we see in our back yard. Exposing students to that connection point was one of the goals — to realize that global change as a whole is not just this abstract phenomenon. It's something you can see every day looking out your window. And for us as scientists, we can go out, measure it and do the science," Noone says.

Noone and his graduate assistant, Kyle Niezgoda, took students to the Oregon Coast and aboard a research vessel, to the hillocks of the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest and finally to the high desert of central Oregon. Students dove into coastal meteorology, clouds, terrestrial ecology, paleoclimatology, atmospheric chemistry, snow physics and more. Altogether, they absorbed about two terms' worth of concepts, allowing them to make real-time linkages between different environments and processes.

"Sometimes we need more than our eyes to observe," Noone says.

For example, students used a CO2 gas analyzer to see day-to-day carbon fluctuations in an otherwise-invisible gas. They discovered that daily variations are about three to four times the magnitude of yearly changes. The experiment contrasted slow, gradual changes, which cause global warming, against those happening every day as forests "breathe." This was compared to the slower changes of CO2 that they measured in sea water from the OSU research vessel.

"It's easy to observe some mechanisms, like the energy moving between the ground and the atmosphere, but there are much subtler changes taking place — like the slowly shifting concentration of greenhouse gases. The significance can be a challenge to illustrate in the classroom — instead careful measurements out in the real world allow students to discover the deeper subtleties themselves," Noone says. "Hands-on learning by observation is an important pathway to student success."

There were several other ah-ha! moments throughout the course. Kyle Niezgoda recalls an experiment where students cored trees in towering Oregon forests to measure tree-ring width as an indication of stored carbon to piece together a record of past climate. Trees grow faster when summers are warm and wet, and the tree records that students constructed allowed them to discover the climate history in Oregon to before the United States was officially a country. Several students had a huge jump in carbon storage about 50 years before today. They wondered, what did the signal mean? Was it a puzzling error? An anomaly? Part of a larger cycle?

"It turns out the jump at 50 years corresponded to logging that occurred in the forest. The loss of competition led to an increase in growth rate," Niezgoda says.

The measurements showed students how to see the forest for the trees. "It was like this guided discovery where one person got it, then another, while some didn't see the signal. So, students began to ask questions, like where did you get your tree? It was really a fun experiment and a huge learning experience for me," Niezgoda adds.

Besides teaching fundamentals, the course built a climate of camaraderie. Participants could ask Noone and Niezgoda about life as a scientist or graduate student. Learners and researchers alike worked as a cohort and co-discovered information.

Ava Cooper, an undergraduate who participated in the course, appreciated the close-knit learning environment. "Working in teams that crossed academic standings allowed me to collaborate with and become friends with students I otherwise wouldn't have met," says Cooper, a senior in the Climate Science option. "The collaborative fieldwork really helps to solidify and expand on concepts learned in the classroom."

Noone has a vision of expanding the course to life-long learners and the science-interested public. Like his undergraduate students, others could begin to "see" the climate in an everyday context.

"A key to climate science is quantifying changes. This means empowering students to measure and evaluate our environment with the right equipment," he says. "As the premier research university of the state, there's a certain responsibility to share our science very broadly. This class offers a very unique opportunity to do that."

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