Learn about the role that dust plays in Earth's climate, why scientists are interested in studying dust from space, and how to engage students in the science with STEM resources from JPL.
A NASA instrument launched to the International Space Station this summer will explore how dust impacts global temperatures, cloud formation, and the health of our oceans. The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, or EMIT, is the first instrument of its kind, designed to collect measurements from space of some of the most arid regions on Earth to understand the composition of soils that generate dust and the larger role dust plays in climate change.
Read on to find out how the instrument works and why scientists are hoping to learn more about the composition of dust. Then, explore how to bring the science into your classroom with related climate lessons that bridge physical sciences with engineering practices.
Why It’s Important
Scientists have long studied the movements of dust. The fact that dust storms can carry tiny particles great distances was reported in the scientific literature nearly two centuries ago by none other than Charles Darwin as he sailed across the Atlantic on the HMS Beagle. What still remains a mystery all these years later is what that dust is made of, how it moves, and how that affects the health of our planet.
For example, we now know that dust deposited on snow speeds up snow melt even more than increased air temperature. That is to say, that dust traveling to cold places can cause increased snow melt.
Dust can affect air temperatures as well. For example, dust with more iron absorbs light and can cause the air to warm, while dust with less iron reflects light and is responsible for local cooling. Iron in dust can also act as a fertilizer for plankton in oceans, supplying them with nutrients needed for growth and reproduction.
Floating dust potentially alters the composition of clouds and how quickly or slowly they form, which can ultimately impact weather patterns, including the formation of hurricanes. That’s because clouds need particles to act as seeds around which droplets of moisture in the atmosphere can form. This process of coalescing water particles, called nucleation, is one factor in how clouds form.
Thanks to EMIT, we’ll take the first steps in understanding how the movements of dust particles contribute to local and global changes in climate by producing “mineral maps”. These mineral maps will reveal differences in the chemical makeup of dust, providing essential information to help us model the way dust can transform Earth’s climate.
How It Works
NASA has been exploring how dust moves across the globe by combining on-the-ground field studies with cutting-edge technology.
Dr. Olga Kalashnikova, an aerosol scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-investigator for EMIT, has been using satellite data to study atmospheric mineral dust for many years, including tracking the movements of dust and investigating trends in the frequency of dust storms.
As Dr. Kalashnikova describes, “From the ground, we can see what types of dusts are lifted into the atmosphere by dust storms on a local scale, but with EMIT, we can understand how they differ and where they originally came from.”
EMIT is the first instrument designed to observe a key part of the mineral dust cycle from space, allowing scientists to track different dust compositions on a global scale, instead of in just one region at a time. To understand dust’s impact on Earth’s climate, scientists will use EMIT to answer key questions, including:
- How does dust uplifted in the atmosphere alter global temperatures?
- What role do dusts play in fertilizing our oceans when they are deposited?
- How do dust particles in the atmosphere affect cloud nucleation; the process by which clouds are ‘seeded’ and begin to coalesce into larger clouds?
To achieve its objectives, EMIT will spend 12 months collecting what are called “hyperspectral images” of some of the most arid regions of our planet selected by scientists and engineers as areas of high dust mobility, such as Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the American Southwest.
These images are measurements of light reflected from the Earth below, calibrated to the distinct patterns, or spectra, of light we see when certain minerals are present. The EMIT team has identified 10 minerals that are most common, including gypsum, hematite, and kaolinite.
Why are these minerals important? One key reason is the presence or absence of the element iron, found in some minerals but not others.
Dr. Bethany Ehlmann is a planetary scientist and co-investigator for the EMIT project at Caltech and explains that when it comes to heating, “a little bit of iron goes a long way.” Iron in minerals absorbs visible and infrared light, meaning that even if only a small amount is present, it will result in a much warmer dust particle. Large amounts of warm dust in our atmosphere may have an impact on temperatures globally since those dust particles radiate heat as they travel, sometimes as far as across oceans!
Collecting images from space is, of course, no easy task, especially when trying to look only at the ground below. Yet it does allow scientists to get a global picture that's not possible to capture from the ground. Field studies allow us to take individual samples from tiny places of interest, but from space, we can scan the entire planet in remote places where no scientist can visit.
Event: EMIT Launch
Learn more about the launch and find out how to get students engaged with the project using STEM education resources from JPL.
Of course, there are some complications in trying to study the light reflected off the surface of Earth, such as interference from clouds. To prevent this problem, the EMIT team plans to collect data at each location several times to ensure that the images aren’t being obscured by clouds between the instrument and the minerals we’re looking for.
The data collected by EMIT will provide a map of the compositions of dust from dry, desert environments all over the world, but the team involved won’t stop there. Knowing more about what the dust is made of sets the stage for a broader understanding of a few more of the complex processes that make up our global climate cycle. Upon completion of this study, EMIT's mineral maps will support further campaigns to complete our global dust picture. For example, NASA hopes to couple the data from EMIT with targeted field campaigns, in which scientists can collect wind-blown dust from the ground to learn more about where dust particles move over time and answer questions about what types of dust are on the go.
Furthermore, missions such as the Multiangle Imager for Aerosols, or MAIA, will allow us to better understand the effects of these dust particles on air-quality and public health.
Studying Earth’s climate is a complex puzzle, consisting of many trackable features. These can range from sea level to particles in our atmosphere, but each makes a contribution to measuring the health of our planet. Bring EMIT and NASA Earth Science into your classroom with these lessons, articles, and activities to better understand how we’re exploring climate change.
Ocean World: Earth Globe Toss Game
Students use NASA images and a hands-on activity to compare the amounts of land and surface water on our planet.
Time Less than 30 mins
Modeling the Water Budget
Students use a spreadsheet model to understand droughts and the movement of water in the water cycle.
Time 30-60 mins
Graphing Global Temperature Trends
Students use global temperature data to create models and compare short-term trends to long-term trends.
Time 1-2 hrs
Using Light to Study Planets
Students build a spectrometer using basic materials as a model for how NASA uses spectroscopy to determine the nature of elements found on Earth and other planets.
Time > 2 hrs
Cloud Computing: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use pi to calculate how much water could be contained within a cloud.
Time Less than 30 mins
More Earth Science Lessons for Educators
Explore a collection of standards-aligned STEM lessons for students that get them investigating Earth science along with NASA.
The Types of Clouds and What They Mean
Learn about cloud types and how they form. Then help NASA scientists studying clouds.
Time 30-60 mins
Make a Cloud in a Bottle
Have you ever wondered how clouds form? In this activity, you can make your own cloud to see for yourself!
Time < 30 mins
Video Series: NASA's Earth Minute
Learn about the science behind climate change and the NASA missions studying it in these short videos.
Time < 30 mins
The Change of Seasons: Views from Space
See how seasonal changes affect our planet.
Time < 30 mins
More Earth Science Activities for Students
Explore Earth science with these projects, videos, and slideshows for students.
- Teachable Moments
Reflecting On Greenland’s Melting Glaciers as OMG Mission Concludes
Explore how the OMG mission discovered more about what's behind one of the largest contributors to global sea level rise.
- Teachable Moments
Earth Satellite Joins NASA Fleet to Monitor Sea Level, Improve Weather Forecasts
Learn about the mission and find out how to make classroom connections to NASA Earth science – plus explore related teaching and learning resources.
- Teachable Moments
Climate Change Collection
Explore this collection of Teachable Moments articles to get a primer on the latest NASA Earth science missions, plus find related education resources you can deploy right away!
- NASA Climate Change
- NASA Earth Observatory - Images of Dust and Haze
- NASA Climate Kids
- Recursos En Español: NASA Climate Change
NASA hosted a telecon today on the role carbon emissions are playing in climate change and the steps the agency is taking to answer some of the most pressing questions about our planet's future.
Currently, Earth's land cover and oceans are shouldering much of the impacts of human emissions -- about half in fact. But it's unclear if and how long that will continue. Any changes in that support system could mean even bigger changes in Earth's climate. NASA is using a number of strategies and technologies to study the problem, including ground- and space-based instruments, supercomputer simulations and field studies, but climate scientists say there's still more work to do to truly understand how carbon moves among the land, oceans and atmosphere.
Learn more about carbon, climate and NASA's ongoing research with these resources:
News and Blogs
- Feature: "A Breathing Planet, Off Balance"
- Feature: "Seven Case Studies in Carbon and Climate"
- Earth Right Now Blog
Lessons and Activities
Multimedia and Interactives
Facts and Figures
Join the Conversation
- Reddit AMA: "We're NASA scientists studying the role of carbon in our planet's climate. Ask us anything!"
- Follow @EarthVitalSigns on Twitter
- Follow NASA Climate Change on Facebook
In the News
“Sea level rise” – we hear that phrase, but what does it mean, really? How does it affect us? Do I have to be concerned about it in my lifetime? These are all great questions!
Sea level rise is the increasing of the average global sea level. It doesn’t mean that seas are higher by the same amount everywhere. In fact, in some areas, such as the west coast of the US, sea level has actually dropped slightly … for now. But before we get into that, let’s understand the main contributors to sea level rise:
- Melting mountain glaciers - Glaciers are bodies of ice on land that are constantly moving, carving paths through mountains and rock. As glaciers melt, the runoff flows into the oceans, raising their levels.
- Melting polar ice caps - Think of our north and south polar regions. At both locations, we have ice on land (“land ice”) and ice floating in the ocean (“sea ice”). Melting sea ice, much like ice cubes melting in a drink, does not affect the level of the oceans. Melting land ice, however, contributes to about one third of sea level rise.
- Thermal expansion of water - Consider that our oceans absorb over 90 percent of the heat trapped by greenhouse gasses in Earth’s atmosphere. When water heats up, its molecules become more energetic, causing the water to expand and take up more room, so that accounts for about a third of sea level rise.
Let’s take a closer look at global sea levels. Sea level is not constant everywhere. This is because it can be affected by ocean currents and natural cycles, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO, a 20- to 30-year cyclical fluctuation in the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperature. Because of the PDO, right now the Eastern Pacific has higher sea levels than usual, while the Western Pacific has lower sea levels than usual. However, the global average of 3 millimeters of sea level rise per year is increasing and the rate that it’s increasing is speeding up. That means that sea level is rising, and it’s rising faster and faster. Take a look at this video for some great visuals and further explanation of how phenomena such as the Gulf Stream affect local sea level heights.
Why It's Important
You may be asking yourself, how do we know sea levels are rising? Well, a couple of ways. First, for the past 23 years we have been using data from several NASA satellites to constantly measure sea surface height around the globe. Data from these ocean altimeters is integrated to refine and calibrate measurements. Additionally, we have tide gauges on Earth to ground-truth (locally validate) our satellite measurements. As for historical data, we use sediment cores -- drillings into Earth that yield the oldest layers on the bottom and the youngest layers on top -- to examine where oceans once reached thousands of years ago.
Locally, folks are making observations – and already seeing the impacts of sea level rise on their communities. Places such as Miami are now experiencing regular flooding in downtown city streets at high tide. The South Pacific island nation of Kiribati saw a 2.6 millimeter rise in sea level between 1992 and 2010. That may not seem like much, but when you consider that the land only sits about 2 meters above sea level, that’s a big deal; some villages have already had to relocate to escape the rising tides. Residents of China's Yellow River delta are swamped by sea level rise of more than 25 centimeters (9 inches) a year. Even NASA is concerned about some of its facilities that are located in low-lying areas.
Besides wiping out dry land, encroaching salt water can pollute our fresh water supplies and damage fresh-water dependent ecosystems. It’s not just fresh water rivers and lakes that are at risk – our aquifers, or natural underground water storage, are at risk of filling with salt water as the ocean encroaches on the land above them.
Clearly, sea level rise is something that is already affecting people and will continue to do so. All three contributors to sea level rise can be attributed to the warming of the Earth system. Warming temperatures cause mountain glaciers and polar ice caps to melt, thereby increasing the volume of water in the oceans. At the same time, our oceans are getting warmer and expanding in volume as a result of this heat (thermal expansion). Since 1880, global sea level has risen 20 centimeters (8 inches); by 2100, it is projected to rise another 30 to 122 centimeters (1 to 4 feet). Watch this video for some illustrations of these facts:
Also check out the Climate Time Machine for Sea Level to see what impact a 1 meter to 6 meter rise in sea level will have on the coastal US and other areas of the world.
If we can control our contributions to the rise in greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, we can perhaps level out the warming of the Earth system and eventually stabilize our sea levels. In the meantime, we need to be prepared for the impact encroaching seas will have on our coastal communities and water supplies.
To engage your students in analyzing real climate data and drawing their own conclusions, have them try these Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core Mathematics aligned problems.
Have students use these two satellite data graphs to answer the questions below. (To obtain exact data points, place your mouse on the section of the graph you would like to examine.)
- What is the source of the data for each graph?
- Which years are covered by each graph?
- Is one graph a better representation of global sea levels than the other? Why or why not?
- By approximately how many millimeters did sea level rise between:
A) 1910 and 1930?
55 mm – 45 mm = 10 mm (approx.)B) 1930 and 1950?
120 mm – 55 mm = 65 mm (approx.)
- What is the approximate average rate of increase of sea level rise between 1870 and 2000?
Note: students of various math abilities may approach and solve this problem within their capabilities. The most sophisticated approach is to find the slope of the line of best fit. The correct answer is approximately 1.5 mm per year.
- By how many millimeters did sea level rise between the first measurement obtained in January 1993 and the first measurement obtained in January 2013?
(55.69)-(-16.56) = 72.25 mm
- What is the approximate rate of sea level rise between January 1993 and present?
Note: The answer for this problem is directly stated at the top of the graph, 3.21 mm per year. Students of various math abilities may approach and solve this problem within their capabilities. The most sophisticated approach is to find slope of the line of best fit.
- By how much did the average global temperature change, and did it increase or decrease between 1910 and 1930? How about between 1930 and 1950?
A) (-0.12)-(-0.46) = 0.34 (increase by 0.34 degrees C)
B) (-0.19)-(-0.12) = -0.07 (decrease by 0.07 degrees C)
- Compare your answers to question number 8 with your answers to question number 4. Can you offer an explanation for the correlation or lack thereof?
Encourage students to critically examine the graph, noting the temperature increase that occurred between 1930 and 1944, preceding the temperature decrease between 1944 and 1950. Students familiar with heat capacity should include this concept in their discussion.
- What is the approximate average global temperature rise per year from the first measurement taken in 1880 to present?
Note: students of various math abilities may approach and solve this problem within their capabilities. The most sophisticated approach is to find slope of the line of best fit. The most conservative answer is 0.007°C per year, the best-fit answer is closer to 0.01°C.
Have students examine this line graph for average global temperature and use it to answer the questions below.
Now, what can you do to be kind to Earth and do your part to control greenhouse gases in our atmosphere?
- First, watch this video to learn more about our changing climate:
- Next, check out this interactive feature to see what others around the globe are doing and add your ideas.
News and Resources
- Earth Right Now Blog
- Article: "Warming Seas and Melting Ice Sheets"
- Article: "The Fingerprints of Sea Level Rise"
- NASA’s Climate Change website
- NASA Earth Missions