Meet a Climate Scientist: John Barnes

Posted on January 31st, 2012 by Harriet Shugarman

Photo Courtesy: Harriet ShugarmanToday's featured scientist is Dr. John Barnes. During 24 Hours of Reality, Dr. Barnes helped us showcase Presenter Maxine Burkett directly from his office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Dr. Barnes is the Mauna Loa Observatory Station Chief, and the Principle Investigator for the observatory's light detection and ranging (LIDAR) program.

Dr. Barnes not only has an office in the town of Hilo, but his other more "famous" office is located approximately 40 miles from there – a "world away" – near the top of the still active Mauna Loa volcano. Most of us think of Hawaii as a place of palm trees, oceans and sandy beaches. Dr. Barnes' Hawaii, up on Mauna Loa, is often a chilly 30-50 degrees Fahrenheit and surrounded by lava fields and, on occasion, even a little ice and snow! To get to work, Dr. Barnes drives his pickup down a one-lane, pothole-filled lava road, from sea level to over 11,000 feet, arriving at a NOAA base station where scientists have been working on a daily basis since 1956.

Dr. Barnes also moonlights as the official observatory "tour guide," and recently took me on a tour. Read on for some of the highlights!

Photo Courtesy: Harriet ShugarmanMauna Loa Observatory: Mauna Loa is of the top sites in the world for the collection of atmospheric data, and staff at the MLO have been diligently recording daily carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere since 1958. These scientists have been providing us with the proof, the evidence, and the reality of how CO2 has been increasing at a rate and pace never observed before in our Earth's history. Professor Roger Revelle's work back in the 1950s was seminal in the study of the "greenhouse effect," pointing out the relationship between our use of fossil fuels and increasing levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. To help prove this relationship, Professor Charles Keeling initiated the CO2 data collection study at the observatory. Scientists and lay people around the world are now familiar with the "Keeling Curve," which shows us the buildup of CO2 in our atmosphere. 

Dr. Barnes' "Day Job": In addition to serving as the Station Chief for the observatory, where a wide range of atmospheric data collection and experiments are conducted by countries and organizations from around the world, Dr. Barnes is also the principal investigator for the NOAA LIDAR Program, which detects stratospheric changes. One of Dr. Barnes' earliest specialties was and still is studying the ozone layer. Dr. Barnes believes that within the next five years, the hole in the ozone that we humans created will begin to recover, though it will take 50 years to get back to normal!

Dr. Barnes also monitors particles in the atmosphere that come from things like volcanic explosions, dust and air pollution from Asia, as well as water vapor. He has even used his lasers to validate satellite measurements for NASA. Dr. Barnes designed and built much of the equipment that he uses up at the observatory, and he has even written the software that analyzes the data he gets when he "shoots off" his lasers. Dr. Barnes is a pretty talented guy!

I asked Dr. Barnes why the work at Mauna Loa on CO2 data collection is so important. According to Dr. Barnes: "We provide accurate, well-calibrated, long-term measurements that track how the atmosphere is changing. The data can then be used by climate modelers to make predictions of future climates."

Climate Reality Presenters like me rely on peer-reviewed scientific studies that use strong, reliable data to help present the facts about climate change to grassroots audience all around the world – and scientists like Dr. Barnes are essential to the work we do.

For more on the history and work behind the CO2 data collection that takes place at Mauna Loa, Dr. Barnes suggested we take a look at the book by Forest M. Mimms III, Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory: Fifty Years of Monitoring the Atmosphere, published by the University of Hawaii Press, in November 2011. For more pictures of my trip to the top of the Mauna Loa volcano, click here.

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