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Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers: Biogeoscientist

6 minutes

(Describer) A man wearing a headset turns on a camera, then speaks into it.

[static crackles]

Here we are flying along at 45,000 feet. Beautiful day. All systems still go. Give you a little view on the outside here.

(Describer) He turns the camera toward a window, showing an airplane wing and clouds below.

(female narrator) You might call it science with altitude.

(Describer) On the ground...

We're on Niwot Ridge at about 11,000 feet.

(narrator) This biogeoscientist calls it a day at the office.

(man) A great thing about my job, I can mix fun activities with work.

(Describer) He skis down a snowy hill.

I'm Britt Stephens, I work for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

(Describer) On the plane...

Hi, Mom! This instrument measures carbon dioxide and also oxygen. And the oxygen measurement is really the challenging part here.

(Stephens) Carbon dioxide comes from cars and power plants and is taken up by trees and ocean. I discover where it's going to and coming from, and how it's affecting the Earth's temperature.

(narrator) The best way to study the atmosphere is to be there. We have an instrument here, an ultraviolet light shining through the air. It tells how much oxygen by how much is absorbed.

(narrator) Britt's measurements come from an instrument he knows better than anyone, because, well, he made it. The actual sensor's inside this small box. It has an ultraviolet lamp emitting a wavelength of light absorbed by oxygen, and we're measuring how much of that light is absorbed in the air we've pulled in from outside the airplane.

(Describer) The plane leaves a hangar and takes off. On board, Britt points at a graph on a laptop.

Red is carbon dioxide. Green is oxygen. There was a very large decrease in CO2 as we got near the surface. So, the forests in Wisconsin are taking up a lot more carbon dioxide during the day than up here.

(narrator) By measuring atmospheric oxygen and CO2 levels, Britt's helping the global community come closer to figuring out the exact nature of climate change, and how working with nature might be the key in solving one of the world's toughest problems.

(Stephens) I have hope that if we can understand better how oceans and land plants are taking up carbon dioxide, we can enhance those processes that will help reduce the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

(Describer) He slides the laptop between the instruments.

(narrator) As an essential part of his research, Britt treks around planet Earth with his measuring equipment.

(Describer) On the ground...

We'll go out on our first global loop and fly from Colorado to Alaska to Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, down over Antarctica and back. And then the return trip is via Tahiti, Easter Island, and Costa Rica.

(narrator) When Britt became biogeoscientist, he didn't realize travel and adventure would be included. I've stood toe-to-toe with a moose at night in Vermont. I've worked on instruments on a small buoy while sharks were swimming around underneath. I fly by airplane at 50,000 feet. I've traveled by ship to Antarctica and back. It's a lot of fun traveling with my job.

(narrator) His love of the outdoors eventually made Britt want to make studying the Earth his work. A year into college, I finally realized that pollution and overcrowding had changed things so much that it was apparent to me then that we needed to understand what we were doing much better, and this subject of studying Earth sciences was worth pursuing.

(narrator) Once in the field doing research, he knew he wanted more. That was a discovery that I could take this skill and actually do things outside of a lab or an office. Another aspect of my research is measuring carbon dioxide fluxes on regional scales. To do that, we measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on the tops of mountains.

(narrator) Along the Rocky Mountains, Britt collects data on CO2 changes caused by weather systems. We have six of these out at different sites.

(Describer) He checks instruments in a shed.

We can measure the carbon dioxide in the morning, say, over Steamboat, in the afternoon over Niwot Ridge, and we can see how much the forests removed in between.

(Stephens) Being a scientist allows you to be an active participant in your world. Everything nowadays is related to science. Can you tell if this computer can see the outside world? It's satisfying to be able to understand those things and helping to make things better. What's most exciting about science is when you figure something out that no one has figured out before. There's lots of room for creativity in science. Looking at the great advances, they're all based on some really creative thinking, some unique ideas. We're all part of the problem, also all part of the solution. By studying it, and helping determine things we can do, I hope I'm making a positive difference.

(narrator) And sometimes, making that difference means rising above the clouds.

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What does a biogeoscientist do all day? Find out by spending the day with Britt Stephens at his office 45,000 feet above sea level.

Media Details

Runtime: 6 minutes

Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 1
10 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 10
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