ENG 4350 Winter Semester Field Trip to ARO

ARO_May2The annual ENG 4350 field trip to ARO was highly successful this year as all lab groups were able to track not only GPS satellites, but also GLONASS, Galileo and Beidou satellites as well.  The weather was excellent during the stay and the students had time to see the ARO facility (as well as a bit of Algonquin park).  Thanks to Thoth for once again hosting the class and also to Jennifer Gao for her technical support.

by H. Chesser

Welcome Elise: An Interview

This June, we welcomed Elise to the position of administrative assistant for the department. We wanted to find out a bit more about our newest addition, so we went ahead to ask her a couple of questions!

Full name: Lindsey Elise Armstrong. I go by  Elise, my middle name.

Where did you work before ESSE? I’ve been at York for 13 years. I started in Founders College, then moved to Sociology as the Secretary to the Chair and worked as a Graduate Program Assistant as well. I was also a Secretary to the Chair in the English department and more recently, I held the same position in Social Science.

Favourite thing about York? The endless opportunities for staff, students, and faculty, for involvement both within the York community and externally. I’m really excited to be a part of this department and I look forward to meeting everyone!

Favourite building at York? The Bergeron or Vari Hall, because of the open windows. I like buildings like Petrie, which is smaller, because I feel like it results in a more close knit group.

What’s a big lesson you’ve learned during your time at York? Students will do anything for free food.

What’s your pet peeve? I can’t stand a messy desk!

Favourite Quote? “The only time you should ever look back is to see how far you have come” – Unknown

Favourite Colour? Purple.

Favourite Food? Chocolate!

Favourite Store? RW & Co

Favourite movie? The minions movie, they’re so cute.

If you could be any age, which age would you choose? In my 30s because I feel there’s a certain level of security, maturity, and direction at that age.

Summer/Winter, Apple/PC, Coffee/Tea, Heels/Flats, Ketchup/Mustard/Relish.

Agribot Seminar: Enabling Agricultural Robotics with Space Hardware Technology

On Thursday June 30, ESSE hosted a seminar from Dr. Mark Post, about agricultural robotics and space hardware technology.

Worldwide, it is now accepted that agricultural productivity will have to increase by 25% to allow limited arable land to meet a doubling of demand by 2050, and agricultural robotics is essential to allow real-time and accurate monitoring and response for increasing yields, lowering production overheads, and maintaining the environment. To meet the significant challenge of autonomously roving and tending large fields with robots, we are now making use of technology conceived for space robotics and autonomous planetary surveying tasks to create an automated robotic system known as “Agribot” that includes the use of a ground station, unmanned ground vehicle, and unmanned aerial vehicle. The main tasks of the Agribot are to autonomously map and visually monitor large farm areas, to obtain high-density soil spectrometry measurements via a portable LIBS system, and allow farmers to interact with plants via a tele-operated haptic arm. The current challenge for the Agribot is to improve farming practices in China, which due to its population density is in critical need of technologies to lower fertilizer and pesticide use while increasing environmental awareness.

Dr. Post received his B.A.Sc. degree in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto in 2004 and his M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in Space Science and Engineering from York University in 2008 and 2014. He is currently a research lecturer in the Space Mechatronics Systems Technology Laboratory (SMeSTech) at the University of Strathclyde. His research interests and experience include machine vision for navigation and recognition, embedded architectures for intelligent sensing and control of mobile rovers, and design of mechatronic systems in both Earth and Space environments.

Asteroids, podcast on the CBC

Click here to listen to the original podcast.

On June 2, 2016, NASA confirmed the bright burst of light over Arizona skies to be an asteroid exploding — a mere 90 kilometers above the earth. This came just a few days after another asteroid event in Mexico, where sonic booms and bright flashes marked an asteroid’s entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

These recent close calls have brought attention to those scientific voices urging the world to pay more attention to asteroids, and the threat they pose.

‘[Stopping an asteroid from hitting us] would certainly be in my view one of the most momentous events in human history.’ – Brent Barbee, Aerospace Engineer with NASA

On The Current, the likelihood of a catastrophic asteroid hitting Earth is discussed, the impact it would have, and the work that is being done to avoid such an event.

‘We actually have in principle the means and the technology to stop one of these asteroids from hitting us.’ –  Brent Barbee, Aerospace Engineer with NASA

  • Michael Daly, York University research chair in Planetary Science, and lead scientist on a NASA asteroid mission.
  • Brent Barbee, an Aerospace Engineer with NASA.


Open Your Mind: A Q&A with glacier researcher William Colgan

William Colgan, a professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering. Colgan studies glacier-climate interactions. He has just returned from a 36-day expedition to the Greenland ice sheet as part of the NASA FirnCover research team. Firn is the near surface layer of the ice sheet that covers 80 per cent of the surface of Greenland. While on the expedition, Colgan collected data to measure how firn density is changing in response to climate change.

William Colgan

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. I study glacier-climate interactions. I just returned from a 36-day expedition to the Greenland ice sheet as part of the NASA FirnCover research team. Firn is the relatively porous near-surface layer of the ice sheet. We travelled south-to-north on the ice sheet collecting shallow core samples and deploying instrumentation to measure how firn density is changing in response to climate change. Satellite observations can be used to document how quickly the ice sheet is thinning, but in situ data is needed to understand what fraction of this thinning is due to increasing firn density over time, rather than true ice loss.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. I travelled to Nunavut to work as a hydrology assistant one summer during my undergraduate degree. The High Arctic was big and new to me. Passing through Resolute Bay, I met some University of Alberta glaciologists. I had had a wonderful time that summer, but they had even better stories and photos. So two years later I began an MSc degree in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences with that group at the University of Alberta.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. Glaciers are now a charismatic symbol of the rapidity and magnitude of climate change. Increasing mean sea level globally, as well as decreasing water resources in many regions, make understanding glacier-climate interactions a pressing topic. My sense is that the glaciology community feels an urgency to its work, which is evident in a move away from hypothesis-based research toward objective-based research. For example, 30 years ago people were saying “why does a glacier behave that way?” but now people are saying “tell me how that glacier will behave.”

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. Working with the FirnCover team, we are trying to bridge the divide between in situ sampling and satellite measurements. As in many fields of the earth sciences, the vastly different spatial scales and techniques used in field versus satellite science can make it hard to bridge the gap between people comfortable deploying field instrumentation and those running big-data algorithms on higher performance computers. On the FirnCover team, researchers do both. The same hands that deploy sensors also debug numerical code. This makes our team really aware of the strengths and weaknesses of both the in situ and satellite data.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. Right now the field data and subsequent algorithm improvements coming from the FirnCover expeditions represent the best opportunity to correctly calibrate the Greenland ice sheet mass loss assessed by the NASA ICESat-2 and ESA CryoSat-2 altimetry satellites. This means many researchers are closely following the hybrid field-code approach of the FirnCover team.

Researchers service one of PROMICE’s automatic weather stations on the Greenland ice sheet that was used in the study. Photo by William Colgan, York University

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (i.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing your research.)

A. On our FirnCover 2016 expedition we visited the new EastGRIP drilling project in far northeast Greenland. EastGRIP is a European collaboration to drill the sixth deep ice core through to the bed of the Greenland ice sheet. We were on site installing FirnCover instruments and collecting data, but we had a chance to visit the tunnel network they are constructing for the four-year drilling campaign. It was a very unique exposure to the people and infrastructure involved in a Tier-1 international research collaboration.

Q. Every researcher, from novice to experienced, encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. Weather seems to be the biggest challenge to any expedition to the Greenland ice sheet. Storm periods, when we are tent-bound for one to several days, clearly limit our ability to collect data. But there can also be knock-on scheduling effects related to weather, like when a charter aircraft is delayed at a different site due to weather elsewhere. Responding to weather challenges can require some serious flexibility. One evening at Summit Station during FirnCover 2016 we received notice at 2200 hours advising that our plane was being recalled back to the coast at 0800 to escape an approaching storm. (There is no hanger at Summit, so aircraft can be rather exposed just sitting on the ice sheet.) We still had some work to do, so we worked through to the wee hours of the morning. It was -32 degrees C that night and we were slightly short of breath at 3,200 m elevation, but the FirnCover team appreciated that collecting the data was paramount.

Ice sheet

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. As I have delved deeper into the historical literature associated with ice sheet research, I have become increasingly interested in leveraging well-documented legacy data for new purposes. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers produced an abundant volume of ice sheet and climate data during their Cold War-era attempt to colonize the ice sheet with roads and bases. The FirnCover team is starting to pore through these documents with fresh eyes and finding some true research gems. For example, the predilection of the Army Engineers to collect firn density profiles for structural analysis for building on the firn is proving to be a very useful source of firn density records. Tracking down and digitizing these legacy data are allowing us to directly compare our 2010s observations of firn structure to 1960s baseline observations.


Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I am teaching Dynamic Earth and Space Geodesy (ESSE1010) in the fall of 2016. I  spend half the course sharing my fondness of satellites with the students. I want them to appreciate the different orbitals and sensors, and understand that the Hollywood penchant for depicting scenes with a downward-looking video feed is just not possible from satellites orbiting at two km per second. Since it is a first-year survey course, I limit cryospheric content to about 10 per cent. I am also teaching Climate and Climate Change (ESSE4160) in the fall of 2016. I spend virtually the entire course going through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report with students so they can craft an informed understanding of not only the processes studies and data types used by the IPCC, but also the consensus-based deliberative political framework in which the volumes are crafted. Since it is a fourth-year specialized course, it more strongly reflects my research interests than my first-year course. I will be blending FirnCover 2016 photos and stories in with material from previous expeditions in both these courses.

York University receives $1M gift from Carswell Family Foundation for graduate student scholarships

On Tuesday, May 31, York University announced and celebrated a $1-million gift from Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell and the Carswell Family Foundation. The donation will create a permanent endowment and an expendable fund to establish Carswell Scholarships for graduate students in the Faculty of Science and the Lassonde School of Engineering.

Addressing the more than 100 guests in attendance at the announcement, York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri spoke about the importance of the gift. “In his role as a professor here at York, Allan experienced firsthand the significant contributions that students make to the research enterprise, as well as the financial challenges of being a graduate student,” said Shoukri. “He also understands the challenges of being a faculty member trying to recruit great students. This gift will go a long way to addressing those challenges so that our students and faculty members in the Faculty of Science and the Lassonde School of Engineering have the support they need to continue to conduct groundbreaking research.”

The gift will allow York University to start awarding Carswell Scholarships as early as this September. The endowed component of the donation has been matched by the University with the support of the Provost and the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies to ensure that the Carswell Scholars program continues over the long term.

“This is a very special occasion and opportunity for the Carswell Family Foundation,” said Carswell. “It’s a win-win-win situation: a win for not only students, but also for the professors and their research activities, as well as more broadly for the advancement of science and engineering. The foundation is extremely pleased to be a part of this.”

This is not the first gift that Carswell and his family have made to York University. In 2004, Optech, a global company founded by Carswell during his tenure at York, became a significant supporter of research at the University with a donation of $125,000 to establish what is now called the Optech Lab. To this day, the Optech Lab at York continues to stage a unique-in-Canada course on experimental techniques in laser physics and atom trapping.

At the gift announcement, Ray Jayawardhana, dean of the Faculty of Science, and Janusz Kozinski, dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering, spoke about the impact Carswell’s gift will have for their students moving forward.

“As a pioneering scientist and a long-serving physics professor, Allan understands the transformative potential of research and the vital role that graduate students play in the research enterprise,” said Jayawardhana. “He appreciates that graduate students are not only the `scientists of tomorrow’, but also of today… I can’t wait to see the exciting discoveries and meaningful contributions that Carswell Scholars will make at York and beyond.”

“With this gift we can guarantee that more of our young talent will have the resources and the support to get started on their journeys into the unknown,” said Kozinski. “It will be up to them to show the courage, the skill, the perseverance and the will it takes to get to the top of their fields. We have no idea where their journeys will take them or where they will end. What we do know, is that for many of them here at York – thanks to the Carswell Foundation – it started here today.”

This gift comes at an opportune time in the University’s journey, particularly with the launch of Impact: The Campaign for York University, a $500-million fundraising and alumni engagement campaign. This Campaign celebrates the University’s impact on the world – past, present and future – and acknowledges alumni and donors, like Carswell and the Carswell Family Foundation, whose financial support has contributed to this remarkable success.

“On behalf of York University and all of our students, faculty and staff members, I wish to thank Dr. Carswell and the entire Carswell family for this incredible contribution towards our students and our future,” said Shoukri.

Ministry grant aims to create new Ontario climate change projections

ESSE professor Peter Taylor is part of a York team which recently received a grant to improve climate risk assessment in the province.

Huaiping Zhu, professor in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics, Faculty of Science, and his team have received a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) to improve climate risk assessments in the province.

The team will be the first in Ontario to consolidate the large number of existing province-specific climate projections into a common set of scenarios.

“Climate data experts and government recently expressed an urgent need for coordinated and easy-to-use projections for climate change in Ontario,” explains Zhu, also director of the Laboratory of Mathematical Parallel Systems at York University. “Given our group’s expertise in mathematical modelling, we were selected to take the lead on this initiative and we’re thankful to the MOECC for supporting this work.”

Zhu’s team members include professors Neal Madras, Xin Qiu, and Peter Taylor; post-doctoral fellow Ziwang Deng; and research associate Xiaolan Zhou.

The team will develop climate projections for the 2050s and 2080s using data from various Canadian and international agencies. They will account for a number of average and extreme variables related to precipitation and temperature and use statistical methods already developed in their lab to consolidate the data.

“Our new projections will enhance climate research and help to inform government planning and policies in Ontario,” says Zhu. “Climate change has so many implications, such as for agriculture and how we build our homes and infrastructure, and having reliable climate predictions will help us plan and adapt appropriately.”

In addition to creating new projections, the team is also working on re-designing their Ontario Climate Change Data Portal to make the data easy to use and access.

Zhu has held funding from the MOECC since 2011. He is regularly consulted by local, Canadian and international governments, agencies, and research teams for his expertise.

NSERC awards $1.65 million to York-led research partnership

ESSE’s own John Moores is part of a group of eight researchers in Canada that have been awarded $1.65 million as a part of a program focusing on professional-centered, collaborative learning for students and postdoctoral fellows.

An academic-industry partnership led by York University has received a total of $1,650,000 through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada‘s (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) Grants Program.

Ray Jayawardhana, dean of the Faculty of Science and a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, is the principal investigator of the successful Technologies for Exo-Planetary Science (TEPS) program, which has been allocated $1.65 million over six years.

This innovative program will take full advantage of Canada’s major investments in such breakthrough facilities and missions as the James Webb Space Telescope, the OSIRIS-Rex Asteroid Sample Return and the Thirty Meter Telescope, as well as Canada Foundation for Innovation grants to co-applicants on the Canadian Planetary Simulator and the SPIRou infrared spectrometer projects, to position TEPS trainees at the forefront of the rapidly developing and exciting field of exo-planetary science.

The program will offer students and postdoctoral fellows innovative and collaborative training environments, incorporating internships, student mobility and professional training to address scientific challenges associated with Canada’s strategic research priority in Advanced Manufacturing. The program will also provide trainees with the breadth and depth of expertise and skills required to fill gaps in job markets, specifically in the key industrial sectors of robotics, aerospace, optical technologies and space exploration.

The co-applicants on the project team include eight researchers at seven Canadian universities –including John Moores, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering at York University – as well as 16 other academic collaborators and seven non-academic partner organizations. The program will contribute to the training of 80 students and postdoctoral fellows over six years.

“We are delighted to provide a world-class training environment in the field of exo-planetary and planetary science through this program,” said York’s Vice-President Research & Innovation, Robert Haché. “The NSERC CREATE program supports industry-academic collaborations and provides an important opportunity for students and postdoctoral trainees to receive mentoring from leaders in the field.”


New cause of exceptional Greenland melt revealed

A new study by researchers from Denmark and York University, published in Geophysical Research Letters, has found that the climate models commonly used to simulate melting of the Greenland ice sheet tend to underestimate the impact of exceptionally warm weather episodes on the ice sheet.

Researchers service one of PROMICE’s automatic weather stations on the Greenland ice sheet that was used in the study. Photo by William Colgan, York University

The study investigated the causes of ice melt during two exceptional melt episodes in 2012, which occurred from July 8 to 11 and from July 27 to 28. During these exceptional melt episodes, which can be regarded as an analogue to future climate, unusually warm and moist air was transported onto the ice sheet. During one episode, the researchers measured the ice sheet melting at more than 28 cm per day, the largest daily melt rate ever documented on the ice sheet. While the two brief melt episodes only lasted six days combined, or six per cent of the melt season, they contributed to 14 per cent of the total melt.

Using the Programme for Monitoring of the Greenland Ice Sheet (PROMICE) automatic weather station data, the researchers ranked the energy sources contributing to surface melt during 2012 at twelve PROMICE sites around the ice sheet periphery. While ice sheet melt is usually dominated by the radiant energy associated with sunlight, the researchers found that the energy associated with air temperature and moisture content, rather than radiant energy, was responsible for more melt during the 2012 exceptional melt episodes.

As Robert Fausto of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, lead author of the study, says, “When we were analyzing our weather station data, we were quite surprised, that the exceptional melt rates we observed were primarily caused by warm and moist air, because ice sheet wide melt is usually dominated by radiant energy from sunlight. “

This finding has implications for how the scientific community projects future ice sheet melt using climate models. In the study, the researchers also show that while the models presently used to project ice sheet melt can accurately simulate melt due to radiant energy, models tend to systematically underestimate melt due to the non-radiant energy processes they document.

“Glaciological instrumentation capable of automatically recording the daily rate of melting in exceptional melt circumstances, where the ice surface lowers by close to 10 m in a few months, has only emerged in the last decade or so, thanks to PROMICE. The detail of PROMICE observations is permitting new insights on brief, but consequential, exceptional melt events,” says William Colgan of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, a co-author of the study.

Fausto adds that, “Exceptional melt episodes dominated by non-radiant energy are expected to occur more frequently in the future due to climate change. This makes it critical to better understand the influence of these episodes on ice sheet health.”

William Coglan

Lassonde ESSE alumna contributes to detection of Gravity Waves

Lassonde alumna Dr. Susan McCall’s work played a significant role in the process behind the detection of gravitational waves by Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). This detection, announced last week, was touted as one of the most important scientific discoveries of our time, cementing Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and ushering in a new era in science.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of time and space and are produced by massive objects such as stars and planets.

Dr. Susan McCall received her M.Sc. and Ph.D. from the department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering at York University in 1992 under the supervision of Professor Gordon Shepherd.

Dr. Susan McCall received both her M.Sc. and Ph.D. from York University

Currently, Dr. Susan McCall is the founder and president of Stellar Optics Research International Corporation and a specialist in optical black surfaces/materials and optical scatter data. She also recently founded the York University Science Alumni Network.

Dr. McCall was contracted by Breault Research Organization to provide a list of candidates, glossy black materials and coatings for long-term, vacuum compatible use in the LIGO chambers while meeting the challenging optical scatter requirements of having Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function (BRDF) scatter values of less than 0.001, at large backscatter angles, for 0.6328 micrometers.

In addition to these challenging optical requirements, the materials had to be of reasonable cost and easy to install, given that there were to be 100 to 200 panels as large as 12 cm by 383 cm. Dr. McCall provided these samples for the Breault Research Organization and LIGO, thus contributing to the detection of gravity waves.

“The experience I gained from studying black surfaces for extreme environments, York U’s emphasis on multidisciplinary research, my brilliant mentors Dr. Gordon Shepherd, Dr. Robert Breault, and Dr. J. A. Dobrowolki were the essential keys that paved the way for SORIC’s products, contracts and sales with major companies, space agencies, and astronomical observatories around the world,” said Dr. Susan McCall about her time studying at York University.