NASA MERRA-2 Aerosols

TEAM: David Schurman

            Mentors: Steven Pawson, Trena Ferrell

ROLE: Lead Animator, Developer

TECHNOLOGY: Python, matplotlib, NCCS Discover Supercluster

At NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, I used data from a climate model called MERRA-2 to explore the relationship between El Niño and fires in the Malay Archipelago. In 2015, we saw the most severe El Niño event in the two decades, and the drought it caused in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia resulted in widespread fires that, at their peak, were emitting more carbon dioxide than the entire United States economy. And El Niño events are expected to become more severe as climate change progresses. To spread the word about this problem, I wanted to visualize emissions from the 2015 fires in the form of an informational video. Though NASA has not yet published the full video, here are some of the animations I produced using Python and the matplotlib package. 


Black carbon aerosols are released whenever organic material burns––think of them as tiny pieces of charcoal that circulate through the atmosphere. Black carbon aerosols are harmful to human lungs in high enough doses, making them an area of interest for both Earth system scientists and public health researchers.

During the 2015 El Niño, fires in Indonesia released large amounts of these aerosols, drastically impacting air quality throughout Oceania and Southeast Asia. This animation shows how far they can be carried from their source––the darker red shows high concentrations of black carbon, but notice how some aerosol ends up thousands of miles in all directions. 



Another view of black carbon shows its vertical dispersal throughout the atmosphere. While these particles generally stay low to the ground, many are small and lightweight enough to circulate into the stratosphere tens of thousands of feet above the ground. At this height, aerosol particles can remain airborne for long periods of time, allowing them to be transported all around the world.

For example, in high-fire years, these tiny particles fall onto snow in the Himalayas, which in turn increases the snowmelt rate throughout central Asia.



As part of my visualization project, I created a scientific research poster to tie together the patterns I noticed across various data fields––how Pacific sea surface temperature affects Indonesian soil moisture, and how the resultant drought conditions correlate to biomass burning emissions. 

I authored all text and generated all plots, attempting to prioritize readability and cohesive visual design. I am honored to have received the Orbit Award for best intern poster in the Science category from Goddard.

© 2020 by David Schurman