It was a pleasure to welcome Dr. Annmarie Eldering to Wellington last week. A scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Dr Eldering is working on the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) project. She came to Wellington to attend a conference organized to review current standards for measuring levels of carbon dioxide and other gases, in an effort to standardize such metrics worldwide.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which conducted the first-ever stand-up rocket engine test in 1936. Located with CalTech in Pasadena, California, JPL is a major research, development, and exploration hub with a long string of “firsts” to its credit. JPL was led for more than 20 years by Kiwi-American Dr William Hayward Pickering.

I have always had a strong interest in space travel and space sciences, so having someone from NASA nearby is a great temptation. Rather than pepper Dr Eldering with questions, however, I asked her to just talk a bit about the highlights of her visit to New Zealand.

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Dr Annmarie Eldering

Dr Annmarie Eldering.

Dr Annmarie Eldering:

Ambassador, thank you for asking me to write a few paragraphs about my trip.

As you know, the purpose of my visit was to attend a weeklong conference on Greenhouse Gas Measurements, but I did have time to get out and explore a bit.

I’ve never visited New Zealand, so I was impressed by the beautiful scenery of Wellington. I love hiking and getting outside, so on the afternoon of my arrival, I walked all along the waterfront and enjoyed the scenery and beautiful architecture.

The conference is a very interesting meeting of about 100 experts from around the world who take detailed measurements of greenhouse gases. There are measurements being made all over the world – in Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia, throughout the continents of Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Africa, and in many small island nations. The goal is to make sure that all of these measurements can be compared to one another, and that they are precise enough that we can see small trends (i.e., changes over time) in greenhouse gases.

At this meeting, people share comparisons of their data, talk about things they have learned about how the instruments operate, and plan for next steps to improve and continue the measurements. More details about the meeting can be found at: http://www.niwa.co.nz/node/103049

NIWA’s Atmospheric monitoring station at Baring Head.

NIWA’s Atmospheric monitoring station at Baring Head.

I flew in for the meeting because the data that are being collected are critical to the project that I work on. I am one of the science leads of a JPL/NASA project called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. We are building a satellite instrument that will make precise measurements of the carbon dioxide all around the globe.

We will measure the column of carbon dioxide — i.e., the total amount between the surface and the top of the atmosphere. It will be important to check that our measurements are correct, so we will rely on data that is collected by a set of special ground-based measurements like those being discussed at the meeting here in Wellington.

OCO-2 computer model.

Computer model of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2.

Scientists from NIWA are operating a special ground-based measurements site in Lauder and collaborating with us on checking our satellite measurements. I was very happy to meet those scientists in person after all our past communications via email and telephone.

Of course we spent most of our time in meetings at the Convention Center, but one evening we had dinner at the Te Papa museum. We were fortunate that the museum is open late on Thursday, so I had a couple of hours to explore the exhibits before the dinner started. I especially enjoyed the display called “Passports,” where I learned about the waves of immigration to New Zealand. The photos of recent immigrants who came as refugees from other countries were very powerful and certainly resonate with me as an American.

One afternoon, I took some time away from the conference to talk to students at two colleges in Wellington. I always enjoy having the opportunity to talk to students about the project I work on, and also about how I got interested in working in the area of atmospheric sciences and greenhouse gases in the first place.

The first school that we visited was Wellington Girls College. I was quite pleased to see that there was a room full of students who were interested to hear what I had to say. I talked about the path of training and work that I took to end up where I am today, in a science leadership position for the OCO-2 mission.

Dr Eldering at Wellington Girls College.

Dr Eldering at Wellington Girls College.

The girls had great questions — asking about other missions that NASA is building, how air pollution has changed over time, and how our understanding of climate change is improving. They were a very thoughtful audience, attentive, well-mannered, and appreciative. In fact, I left with a nice gift of a local Pinot Gris.

The next stop was Scots College. I was impressed again by the attentiveness of the students and the excellent questions that they asked. Again, it was clear that students had been learning about climate and the carbon cycle, so it was easy to have a good conversation with them. In fact, one of the students had just written an essay about climate change, won a contest, and will be traveling to New York to participate in meetings in the coming weeks.

Dr Eldering at Scots College.

Dr Eldering at Scots College.

It has been an interesting and productive visit, and good progress was made on a very important topic. Ambassador, I’ll keep you informed about how OBO-2 is proceeding.

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Thanks to Dr Eldering for taking time out of her busy schedule to meet some of Wellington’s future scientists during her time here. I always deeply appreciate when visiting VIPs are so gracious and enthusiastic about meeting with students.

Dr Eldering’s visit prompted me to do a bit of additional research, and I came across a great video from the State Department about the importance of women in science. I urge you to take a look by clicking here.

I was delighted this morning to learn that Victoria University of Wellington’s First Light team placed 3rd overall in the 2011 Solar Decathlon. That’s an impressive and exceptional result.

The First Light House team celebrate after their 3rd place announcement

First Light team members celebrating after the final scores were announced.

Sponsored by the US Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon is a biennial competition that challenges entrants to build an environmentally friendly house which is then judged on ten different sets of aesthetic, efficiency, conservation, and comfort criteria. You can read all about the competition in my previous post of November 2010.

Last year the First Light crew became the first New Zealand team ever to make the Solar Decathlon finals. That entitled them to reconstruct their house this year on the National Mall in Washington DC,  to compete head-to-head against the other 19 finalists from around the United States and several other countries.

Folks queue up to check out 3rd place winners, New Zealand’s First Light House.

Washingtonians and tourists queue up to tour the First Light house.

My Embassy colleagues and I have been tracking First Light’s journey since the very beginning, and we had the great pleasure of touring the house a few months ago, just before it was shipped to DC.

I can tell you first-hand that the First Light bach is a truly impressive building structurally, aesthetically, and functionally. I knew it would impress the judges. Take another look to see what I mean:

My DC friends tell me that the Kiwi bach was very popular among the hundreds of thousands of people who visited the various houses during the competition. You can get a flavor of the energy and adventure in Washington from the First Light team’s blog.

Like First Light, the other top winners were inspired by the natural environment in their home locales. A team from Maryland University won first prize in the competition with its WaterShed house inspired by Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem.

University of Maryland took 1st place with their WaterShed house.

The 1st place WaterShed house created by the University of Maryland team.

Second place went to the team from Purdue University for its Midwestern-inspired INhome (short for “Indiana home”).

The entry from Appalachian State University won the People’s Choice award for its Solar Homestead inspired by traditional Appalachian settlements.

Purdue University’s 2nd place-winning INhouse

Purdue University’s 2nd place INhouse.

All of the teams worked long and hard to create impressive structures. Check out the final scores to see how the teams did in each of the ten challenges in the competition. Take a look at the Department of Energy 2011 Solar Decathlon Flickr pages to see photos of all of the entrants as well as more shots of the crowds of viewers.

Congrats again to my friends from Victoria University on the great First Light showing, and thanks to my colleagues at the Department of Energy for developing and running such an important, impactful, and exciting program.