NASA visits Yellowknife

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Peter Griffith, an earth scientist with NASA, left, and Sir John Franklin High School student Aden Rylott stood in front of a NASA Gulfstream jet at the Yellowknife Airport on Monday. Ezra Black/NNSL photo

He has dreams of visiting outer space but on the morning of Sept. 9, the only place Aden Rylott was visiting was the lavatory.

The Grade 12 student at Sir John Franklin High School couldn’t stop vomiting.

“I think I had gastro,” he said.

Not wanting to infect his classmates, Aden planned stay home, but we all know there are times when a kid really needs to grab their backpack and go, even if they’re not feeling 100 per cent.

This was one of those days.

“A bunch of my teachers called me and said NASA’s in town,” said Aden. “You’ve got to go.”
A NASA Gulfstream jet being used for an ongoing research project had been grounded for maintenance. Aden had to get to the Yellowknife Airport where 13 of his peers were getting a tour of the aircraft and speaking to a number of NASA scientists.

His mother, Sara Rylott, obligingly gave him a ride.

“His dream is to work at NASA,” she explained. “He wants to work in physics. He loves physics.”

Thanks to his mother’s efforts, Aden was able to join his schoolmates and learn about a NASA project studying effects of climate change on the boreal forest.

Climate change in the Arctic and boreal region is unfolding at an alarming pace, state experts, and might be resulting in more frequent and severe wildfires.

To learn more about how this impacting Northern ecosystems, NASA is conducting a project called the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) in Alaska and western Canada. The 10-year experiment is now in its fourth year.

The project is looking both at environmental systems and social systems in hopes that its findings will help inform decision-makers.

Its relationship with the NWT began in 2015, after the territory’s forests were scorched by record-breaking wildfires in 2014. Since then ABoVE scientists have partnered with the GNWT, Canadian scientists and Indigenous governments, among others.

“We’re the first NASA project to have an intrinsic societal impacts component,” said Peter Griffith, an earth scientist with NASA. “We’re working on things dear to the hearts of Northerners, like what happens to burnt areas? How do they recover? What kind of vegetation comes back? What kind of changes happen to the permafrost? What are the impacts on the animals that are culturally and nutritionally important to the people of the North?”

To answer these questions, the Gulfstream jet makes regular flights across the North, recording thaw depth, soil moisture, vegetation structure and a number of other variables using a belly-mounted array of instruments contained in the “radar pod.”

Systems engineer David Austerberry explained the workings of the Gulfstream’s radar pod to assembled students, including Aden Rylott, who brought his NASA backpack for the occasion. Ezra Black/NNSL photo

“It’s where the radar lives,” explained Griffith. “And when they repeat the measurements by flying every year, we can see changes in the surface.”
According to project’s latest findings, which were published last month, the increasing severity of wildfires in the boreal forest could be contributing to the release of long-buried carbon stored in soil.

The boreal forest has long been thought to store more carbon than it releases, which makes it a carbon “sink,” states the report.

However, if larger and more frequent fires become the norm, the forest could start releasing more of the greenhouse gas than it stores, which could affect the balance of the global carbon cycle and contribute to climate change.

A more severe fire season could also change the nature of the boreal forest, said Griffith.

“There’s a lot of question and concern over what kind of forest grows back after severe burns,” he said. “Research shows that with really severe burns a conifer fur forest is replaced with a deciduous forest and something like that may be happening here.”

The students spoke with a number of other NASA employees, including research pilot Trent “Beef” Kingery.

NASA research pilot Trent “Beef” Kingery. Ezra Black/NNSL photo

A systems engineer who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school, Kingery explained how a love of flying and an academic focus on the sciences led to a career with America’s space agency, and a memorable call-sign.

Call-signs have a storied history among fighter pilots, he explained. They’re bestowed early in a pilot’s career to promote camaraderie and are often the result of a screw-up.

“We had a guy that went off the runway into the grass on a landing so he got the call-sign Baja,” he explained. “We had one guy who forgot to raise his gear and he came flying around at 500 knots and he was wondering why he couldn’t accelerate, so his call-sign was Drag.”

“For me, Beef is because I’m a big guy,” he continued. “It went through several iterations. It was Stone, then Pebbles, then Shrek and then Beef was the final one.”

He earned his first two nicknames because he had kidney stones, he said. The medical condition kept him out of the running for being an astronaut.

“Being in space and having a kidney stone can be a bad deal,” he said.

Kingery explained how science, physics and engineering all go together to make the ABoVE project possible. He also suggested other aspiring NASA employees should do what they can to stay in school and work hard.

After the tour, Aden said he was feeling “a lot better now.”

He also seemed inspired.

“I really want to work for NASA when I grow up,” he said.

The NASA Gulfstream jet had been temporarily grounded for maintenance. Ezra Black/NNSL photo

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