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Earth to Sky flight captures photos of Sierra drought

January 20, 2014

Photos taken by an Earth to Sky launch on Jan. 6, 2013 (left) and Jan. 8, 2014 (right) starkly reveal the effects of the current drought on the Eastern Sierra. Photo courtesy Earth to Sky Calculus

A recent Earth to Sky Calculus research balloon flight provided panoramic visuals of the effects of the drought plaguing the Sierra’s natural environment and local communities.
On Jan. 8, Bishop Union High School student members of the Earth to Sky science club launched a balloon into the stratosphere “to investigate a solar radiation storm. At the apex of the flight we took some beautiful pictures of the Sierra, which look remarkably brown for this time in year because of the severe drought,” club advisor Dr. Tony Phillips said.
Club member Michael White agreed. “The Owens Valley and surrounding areas did look unseasonably brown and devoid of snow, visual testament to the lack of precipitation this winter. The Hero 3 Plus cameras provided us with excellent images of the drought in part due to the super-wide-angle function of this fairly new Hero release.”
The flight payload included two Hero cameras, a radiation sensor and two Smart Personal Objects Technology, or SPOT, GPS units, which use Globalstar satellite network tracking that showed the balloon landing in Death Valley National Park. White said the balloon landed “close to a road, making for a simple recovery.”
Club member Amelia Koske-Phillips was present for the Jan. 8 launch as well as for a Jan. 6, 2013 launch. “The footage we collected (this time) was sobering. The whole Sierra range was very brown and dry, clearly in the middle of a deep drought … 2013 was a dry year, too, but 2014 is even drier … I believe this flight shows that we can use high altitude balloons to monitor the Sierra snowpack. Our balloons fly higher and have a broader view than any airplane.”
This latest flight was the fifth, and final, in a series of five missions into the stratosphere, the atmospheric layer above the troposphere, said White. The troposphere is the layer closest to Earth, in which airplanes fly. The stratosphere, which contains the ozone layer, “extends from roughly 12-48 kilometers above the earth’s surface.”
The goal of the Jan. 8 flight was to “record radiation levels associated with the X-1 class solar flare that had erupted just a day earlier,” White said. Phillips explained that, “in Earth-weather terms, an X1 flare would be like a category 1 hurricane – at the low end of the scale for big storms.” However, these flares generally cause significant radio blackouts, White said.
In addition to throwing the effects of the drought into stark relief, “examining all five of these launches could lend us insight into the effects of solar flares on the upper atmosphere and how and to what degree they alter radiation levels,” White explained.
Present for the most recent launch were White, Koske-Phillips, Sam Johnson and Justin Gilpin, Phillips said. Rachel Molina, Ginger Perez, Bronwyn Stephenson, Carson Reid, Anna Herbst and Jordan Herbst are also Earth to Sky club members.
Earth to Sky will be launching more balloons this winter, so the young scientists may collect a “time-series of the snowpack in the weeks and months ahead,” Phillips said. “Hopefully the Sierras will become a lot whiter than they are now.”

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