Why Is NASA Studying the Hawaiian Islands and Volcanoes?
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII — Whether it’s the noxious gases rising from the Kilauea volcano, or the lively coral reefs that sprawl across the seafloor around the island chain, Hawaii’s ecosystems are under some serious scientific scrutiny this month.
Researchers are here gathering data using NASA’s high-altitude airplanes, outfitted with cameras that capture visible light as well as infrared radiation. One airplane, the ER-2, can soar to 67,000 feet, or “the edge of space,” as NASA systems engineer Michael Mercury put it. From that height, on daily flights over the islands, the cameras snap images that the scientists then stitch together and analyze, Mercury said, explaining the project at a media briefing that the space agency held here on Wednesday (Feb. 8). [Earth Pictures: Iconic Images of Earth from Space]
The goal of this current work in Hawaii is to find the best ways to use these measurements to gain new insights into volcanic activity and coral reef health. For example, scientists studying Hawaii’s active volcano are trying to refine their models that predict exactly how and when the “vog,” or volcanic smog that forms from Kilauea’s gases, will blanket Hawaiian cities instead of blowing out over the Pacific. Other researchers, who study coral reef ecosystems, are using the images from the high-altitude flights to better understand what aspects of water quality make the difference between a thriving reef and one that is overgrown with algae.
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