Steamboat cloud study to help create better global climate models
December 12, 2010
Steamboat Springs — High cirrus clouds floated across a crisp blue sky above the More Barn on Thursday morning, and Matt Shupe looked up at them with a smile.
"These are nice clouds today," he said.
As he watched them roll by, about a dozen remote sensing instruments at a mobile laboratory near the barn also were taking in the view, measuring clouds and their effects in ways the naked eye cannot.
"We've been excited about these clouds," Shupe said. "These are the kind of clouds we want to study."
The laboratory site, one of three temporary labs at and around Steamboat Ski Area, is part of the Storm Peak Laboratory Cloud Property Validation Experiment, or Stormvex, a Department of Energy-funded project that brings atmospheric scientists such as Shupe from across the country to study liquid, mixed-phase and precipitating clouds.
"Understanding clouds is an important part of climate," Shupe said. "We want to characterize them, give them personality."
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For many Ski Town USA residents, clouds mean precipitation — preferably snow — and the scientific team located in Steamboat Springs for the five-month study certainly is interested in the abundance and makeup of the snow.
But the study has a larger purpose. Scientists want to understand the physical properties of clouds and their particles and how they fit into a larger global model.
"Our ability to predict what's going to happen in the future depends on our ability to understand the physics," said Stephen Springston, an aerosol scientist from Long Island in New York. "It requires us to look at these things in great detail."
Eyes on the sky
It began Nov. 15. Instruments outside the barn site, called the valley site, looked to the sky and began recording solar radiation, temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, light scattering and light absorption.
A group of volunteers launches weather balloons with radio transmitters attached into the sky twice a day from the valley site, adding multiple angles to the wealth of data.
A second site at the top of Christie Peak Express measures particle concentration, a specialty of Springston's.
A third at the top of the Thunderhead Express pointed lasers and radar into the sky to try to get a vertical profile of the clouds.
The three temporary sites make up one of two Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Mobile Facilities that are moved across the globe, supplementing the data of three permanent ARM sites in Oklahoma, northern Alaska and the Western Pacific.
But something makes the Steamboat site unique.
Atop the mountain, the permanent Storm Peak Laboratory is working in conjunction with the project, measuring data similar to that measured by the sites below.
Because the Storm Peak Lab is often immersed in clouds, the scientists can validate the data found below with the actual data inside the clouds atop the mountain.
"That's what anchors this whole thing is this validation," ARM Mobile Facility Site Manager Brad Orr said. "You can put it all together theoretically, but to actually validate that is so important."
In addition, the project received funding from the National Science Foundation for aircraft flyovers in the next few weeks to validate data from above the clouds.
"It's the first time we've really been able to understand what's above us and what's below us," Storm Peak Lab Director Gannet Hallar said. "It's the first time we can see from the valley all the way up."
A global view
Clouds are formed when water droplets condense around particles in the air.
The particles can be natural — like the sulfate particles that likely made up the clouds floating above Steamboat — or man made.
Every particle released into the air can have an effect on cloud cover, when the clouds precipitate and how much.
So clouds, whether formed from natural or man-made particles, have more implications than simply when the next powder day is going to be.
From the Christie Peak lift site, the scientists can see the white clouds billowing from the Hayden Station and Tri-State power plants, also the result of water vapor condensing around small particles.
"The biggest greenhouse gas is not CO2," Springston said. "It's water, water vapor. A 1 percent change in cloud cover globally is on the same scale as man-made CO2. (Clouds) have ramifications on climate, not weather, but climate."
The scientists said no one is sure how man-made particles might affect long-term global climate change. They could cause a slight change in precipitation on a global scale or affect how the sun's rays are scattered and reflected.
"We want to understand the physics of that so we can model it better," Shupe said. "If we can run a better model forward for a 50-year period, then the policymakers will be able to make more informed decisions."
The ARM facilities will provide several sets of eyes on the same subject, offering a comprehensive, global view of the complex science of aerosols.
Stations in places with unique cloud patterns, such as mountainous Colorado, provide data that is unlike any other location and certainly can't be found in an indoor lab.
"It's more complicated in the atmosphere than in a test tube," Springston said. "People are interested in studying it, and it has global significance.
"We're not going to answer the question, but we're going to help answer it."
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