|By Brandi Bernoskie,
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
As a teenager, Carmen Boening enjoyed learning about the universe, the origin of galaxies, stars and planets. She loved watching science documentaries on these topics, but she did not plan to be a scientist.
Instead, Boening majored in mathematics and computer science in college. After completing her first degree, Boening decided to do graduate work in physics. On a research cruise to Antarctica, she began studying ice sheets and decided to become an oceanographer and climatologist. "Being on the ocean and seeing the fascinating landscape of Antarctica made me want to learn more about our planet," Boening says.
As part of NASA's GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) team, Boening uses satellite gravity measurements of the Earth to "weigh" earth system components like ice sheets (Greenland and Antarctica), the continents, and the ocean. Satellite measurements allow Boening and the scientists she works with to determine how fast ice sheets melt and track the movement of water across the surface of the planet.
"We can locate where the melting is faster and where it is slower, which informs us on what processes contribute to the melting and how the ice sheets might react to future changes in climate," Boening says.
GRACE also studies smaller regions. On a local scale, the satellites observe groundwater extraction due to irrigation. Theses measurements, which are difficult to obtain from the ground level, help environmental planners make decisions about local water management.
Boening spends the majority of her time studying global connections of climate patterns. Last year she and her colleagues found that satellites that measure the sea surface height observed a drop in global sea level. They knew there were two reasons why this might happen: either (1) the ocean cools and contracts or (2) water is missing from the ocean. Using the satellite gravity measurements, they were able to determine that the sea level dropped because water was transported from the ocean to land. A large amount of water evaporated over the ocean, which was then transported by the wind to the continents, resulting in more rain on land. This information tells scientists that the sea level will rise again since most of the water will return to the ocean through rivers.
Solving scientific problems in Earth science – like an unexpected drop in sea level – contributes to improving our understanding of our planet and what impact our existence has on it. Scientists can use this knowledge to not only understand the past, but also to see what our future might look like and how we can improve our way of life. "I enjoy that my work has an impact on society," Boening says.
While Boening may not have expected to be a climatologist when she was in high school, she is glad the opportunities she took led her to a job she loves. "Try to follow your dream," she reminds students, "but don't worry if you don't know yet what you would like to do when you grow up." Study interesting subjects and travel. "Some day," Boening says, "you will just know."