Category Archives: Remote Sensing

My Research with the MOSAiC Expedition

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The Polarstern setting up its year-long camp near the North Pole (85° N, 137° E) on October 11, 2019. Photo credit: AWI / Stefan Hendricks.

 

The last few months have been some of the busiest and most exciting of my life. In 2019, I began a PhD program, moved to a new city, started my son in kindergarten, gave my first international presentation, and traveled to four states, four countries, and two new continents. And next year I will be a part of something I never imagined I would be able to do as an electrical engineer. I will travel to the North Arctic, live onboard a research vessel for two months, and participate in the largest Arctic expedition in history.

The Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) is the first year-long Central Arctic expedition and the largest study of its kind. Beginning September, 2019, the German icebreaker Polarstern made way from Tromsø, Norway towards the northern coast of Siberia. It found a section of sea ice large enough to support it and, for the next year, will drift with the ice floe across the Central Arctic, getting within 200 km (~120 mi) of the North Pole. The year is divided into six two-month legs with research vessels from Russia, Sweden, and China assisting in the transfer of personnel and supplies between each leg.

 

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Polarstern drift path. Graphic credit: https://www.mosaic-expedition.org/expedition/drift/

 

Led by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany, 600 researchers from all over the world and from an array of disciplines will come together to study sea ice, ocean, atmosphere, and ecology and acquire data throughout the year as the ice, sea, and atmosphere interact and change in response to the Arctic climate dynamics. This data will then be made publicly available to be used by generations of researchers in the development of ever-more accurate and robust climate change models.

Our group at The Ohio State University built an ultra wideband microwave radiometer (UWBRAD) that will receive emissions in the 0.5 – 2 GHz range and use a radiative transfer model to estimate ice thickness and salinity. These observations will be conducted for the entire length of MOSAiC, giving an overall picture of how the ice changes over the course of an Arctic year. The instrument was designed and constructed by my advisor, Dr. Joel Johnson, and colleagues, Oguz Demir and Mark Andrews at OSU. Oguz and I will each be on a separate leg of MOSAiC, operating the instrument. To be a part of this expedition as a PhD student is the chance of a lifetime.

 

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The Ultra Wideband Software Defined Microwave Radiometer (UWBRAD) installed in the ice floe near the Polarstern. Photo credit: Gunnar Spreen, Nov 2019

 

There will be 40-50 researchers onboard the Polarstern for each leg. They range from atmospheric and marine scientists to electrical engineers. Each group is conducting their own research studies to collect data about the Arctic which will be made publicly available once the expedition is complete. In addition to operating our UWBRAD and other remote sensing instruments during my leg, I will be assisting some of these other research groups to collect data while in the Arctic.

One such group I will assist is the sea ice group. To prepare for my sea ice duties on MOSAiC, in April of 2019, I flew to the northernmost settlement in Alaska, Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), to attend a week of sea ice training.

 

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Utqiaġvik, Alaska, a small town on the north coast of Alaska, faces the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by ice. Image from a Sentinel 2 satellite, taken April 6, 2019, one day before my arrival.

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Closer view of Utqiaġvik.

 

In Utqiaġvik, we learned how to take field measurements in 0°F (-18°C) temperatures and 20-25 mph (32-40 kph) winds. The conditions will be much worse near the North Pole, of course, but it was a great primer for what to expect when working out on the ice for 2-3 hours at a time. The biggest lesson I learned: you need the right cold weather gear. If you are warm inside your gear, you can get the work done you need to do and even enjoy it.

 

 

A few of the highlights from this trip were snowmobiling on the frozen Arctic Ocean, learning to take ice cores for later analysis of the different ice layers, operating a LIDAR scanner to measure changes in snow thickness, and taking snow profiles using the SnowMicroPen.

 

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Jeff Bowman (left), of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, demonstrates taking an ice core, along with researcher Steve Archer (right), of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

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Chris Polashenski (far left), of Dartmouth College, demonstrates using a LIDAR altimeter to precisely monitor snow depth changes.

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Dr. Martin Schneebeli (right), of WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, and researcher Marc Oggier (left), of University of Alaska Fairbanks, use a Snow MicroPen to precisely measure snow profiles.

 

In the mornings and evenings during my week in Utqiaġvik, I left our warm berthing to stand at the edge of the frozen Arctic Ocean and watch the sun come and go for as long as I could take the cold. It is difficult to explain what it feels like to see the edge of the world, and to see what lies beyond it. Where the Beaufort and Chukchi seas meet on the north coast of Alaska, the wind builds unobstructed for a thousand miles. There are no trees or large buildings, just frozen land, sea, and ice. Nietzsche said, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” I could feel the unknown reaching out to me in its slow, heavy way. The longer I stood there, the closer I became to something much bigger and older than me. But inevitably my eyelashes would freeze and my fingertips became numb, so I was forced to turn back towards the road.

 

 

I have always wanted to know what the Earth felt like before man. To live without buildings or roads or hospitals or neighbors or systems that push us forward through life. To live without a safety net. This is it. It is bitterly stunning and cold at the threshold where the last town ends. I have a primitive gratitude for the systems that carry us. We have created structure in our society. We have schools, interstates, climate-controlled offices. We have saved ourselves from chaos and extremes. We could have left progress at the hunter-gatherer stage, but it is not in us to be stagnant. It is in man’s DNA to work towards a goal. We need to build, to light our world, to advance, and to pass on our knowledge to the next generations. The spirit of science is to learn more about our world and the spirit of engineering is to apply that knowledge. But it is our responsibility as humans, capable of understanding the consequences of our actions, to ensure our efforts are applied for the good of the world. We are responsible for the outcome.

Projects like MOSAiC give me hope in our future. It is an international community, funded by multiple international government agencies and nonprofits, working together to learn more about the world, to provide that knowledge free to the world, and to apply it for the good of the world, while taking full advantage of man’s natural need to create structure from chaos. This is mankind at her best.

People are not good or bad, but have the potential to create both. MOSAiC puts us to work, uses our skills and knowledge to create change. If you visit the MOSAiC website, you can find a lot of information about the project, as well as some great videos about the expedition, the science, and the Arctic. In one of them (shown below), the expedition leader, Dr. Markus Rex, beautifully summarizes the purpose of MOSAiC:

“Our overarching scientific goal is to improve the climate models such that they can be used as a solid scientific basis for political decisions we are facing right now so that we can shape our future rather than tumble into it.”

Our greatest desire as societies is to shape our future into what we most believe to be good and true. Unfortunately, we don’t have an overall consensus of what is good and true. Fortunately, research like this helps us gather the data and facts about the world that we need to one day, hopefully in my own or my son’s generation, reach this consensus.

 

Women in Remote Sensing

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View from my dorm room during my week-long stay at Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Cerdanyola del Vallès, Spain

Much has changed since my last post on my undergraduate research with GNSS and UAVs. In Fall of 2018, I applied and was accepted into a PhD program in electrical engineering. I started the program in January and have since become involved in some exciting projects and research. One of those is MOSAiC: the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, which I will soon be writing a separate post for.

But last week I attended a remote sensing summer school near Barcelona. The school was hosted by the Institute of Space Sciences of the Spanish Research Council (ICE-CSIC/IEEC), located at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB) in Cerdanyola del Vallès, Spain, about a 50 minute train ride from Barcelona center. This was the first summer school of the IEEE GRSS Instrumentation and Future Technologies Technical Committee. The week-long course was led by Dr. Estel Cardellach, a remote sensing expert in the field of GNSS-reflectometry. Together with Prof. Adriano Camps, Dr. Lidia Cucurull, Dr. Scott Hensley, Dr. Marwan Younis, Dr. Pau Pratts, Dr. Rashmi Shah, Dr. Serni Ribó, Prof. Adolfo Comerón, Dr. Upendra Singh, and Prof. Alex Papayannis, the instructors covered synthetic aperture radar, GNSS-reflectometry, other signals of opportunity (SoOp), and LIDAR. It was a very fun and informative week and I met many amazing people who are excited about remote sensing and its applications.

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Institute of Space Sciences, UAB: site of our remote sensing course

There were around 40 of us students and we came from at least 24 countries: Romania, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, United Kingdom, Finland, Italy, China, India, Poland, Greece, Germany, Estonia, Japan, Spain, Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, Pakistan, France, Argentina, Guatemala, and the United States. Almost 20 of us were females. We were a diverse lot.

Two of the women I got to know last week have inspired this post (after an interesting conversation on the metro!): Inshu Chauhan and Estefania Ortiz Geist (below). These two remind me that women belong here in science and engineering.

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Inshu Chauhan (left) and Estefania Ortiz Geist (right) at UAB

Inshu Chauhan is an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at G B Pant Institute of Engineering and Technology in Pauri Gharwal, India. She teaches geomatics, introductory remote sensing, GIS, GNSS, and image processing. She has been in her current position for two years and is one of only two women in her department. She loves remote sensing and wants to stay in this field for the rest of her life. “Remote sensing is multi-disciplinary. There are scientific, societal, and environmental aspects that can be integrated to improve the lives of people. I love that, using technology, we can touch people’s lives.”

Estefania Ortiz Geist is a Navigations Operations Engineer at ESA: European Space Agency. She currently works at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, where she has worked in precise orbit determination for GNSS constellations for the last 2 1/2 years. In school, Estefania majored in math, astronomy, and geodesy, and says she has always wanted to work in space. She was born in Argentina and raised in Madrid. She now has a huge interest in working in remote sensing with applications in Earth science.

Over the years, science, math, and programming have become a safe haven for me, a place where I can find relief from the things in the world that don’t make sense. But I only found my passion for them in my twenties. And it wasn’t until I reached my thirties that I finally believed these pursuits could be for me. I look back now and see I had an implicit image in my mind that engineering was for men. Logically, I knew it wasn’t impossible for women to pursue this field. But I had this subconscious image that came up when I thought of ‘engineer’, and I didn’t match it.

Perhaps if I had met more women like Inshu and Estefania earlier in my life, this implicit belief I had would have been challenged and I may have chosen engineering much sooner. Understanding that a career pursuit is not just possible but normal for someone like you makes it much more likely that you will choose it, given interest and ability.

There is this argument going around that women’s underrepresentation in STEM is due to a genuine lack of interest in STEM rather than systemic discrimination. But what this argument overlooks is human beings are wired to want to fit in with their peers. When you’re in school and trying to find your path in life and you look around at the people in a certain profession and do not see others like you, it changes your view of that profession, and of whether or not you belong. You come to a tacit conclusion that that field is not for you. There is no room for you. There are no people like you. And this belief is so insidious that most people have no idea it’s present. Instead, it manifests as an apparent disinterest in a field that was never given genuine consideration.

I have a personal hero whose name is Bertha Lamme. Lamme was the first American woman to graduate in an engineering field other than civil, the first female to graduate from an electrical engineering department, and the first female engineering graduate at my alma mater, The Ohio State University. Unfortunately, she is not well-known by instructors or students, women included. Yet, it is people like Lamme who made this path possible for the rest of us.

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Bertha Lamme, 1892 (courtesy: IEEE History Center)

To be the first at anything, to do something that you have no evidence is possible for you, takes an enormous amount of courage and inner vision; there is nothing more inspiring. And yet, I only learned who Lamme was from a book I happened upon at the library: “Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers,” by Margaret Lane (highly recommended, by the way).

There are so many women who are nameless in history who have paved the way for us. Just as there continue to be women, right now, all around us, who have the courage and inner vision to be the first in their families, the only at their universities, or the leader of their teams. Women who have some intangible inner drive to pursue their dream no matter the obstacles. There is a loneliness to it. But also the knowledge that our paths have great meaning beyond our immediate sight.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we don’t belong here when we sit in a room that is 95% men, or that our male counterparts have an inherent advantage over us. It certainly has happened to me and that type of thinking kept me from pursuing this path earlier in my life. So I take it as a personal mission to be an echo for women like Lamme, Inshu, Estefania, and all women in this field who are doing amazing things in their lives with the knowledge that they will have to fight for the same respect readily given men, and without the glory.

Lamme and others like her were the first to make a career in engineering possible for women. It is our task to continue the change-maker tradition, widening the path by making ourselves visible to future generations, teaching them the new normal.