Steamboat project gives scientists unique, grounded look at clouds

Federally sponsored atmospheric scientists are excited about a Steamboat Springs project that’s letting them stick their heads in the clouds even as they keep their feet planted on the ground.

The Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility has set up a mobile field laboratory at the Steamboat ski area. The five-month project involves examining cloud evolution from four sites stretching from the valley floor to the top of 10,500-foot Mount Werner.

“Steamboat sticks up into the clouds, and with the laboratory up there (at Mount Werner), it’s what makes it unique,” said Jay Mace, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah.

The range of elevations of the project’s instruments will allow scientists to compare measurements made down low with those recorded inside the clouds. Normally, researchers have to fly an airplane into the clouds to accomplish the same thing.

The point of the project is to test the accuracy of measurements used in computer models of clouds and precipitation. Mace said that because of the role clouds play in heating, cooling and hydrology, the project will help improve predictions about climate change, including as it pertains to the Intermountain West. The region will become drier and warmer if current expectations prove true.

Federal economic stimulus funds are being used to help pay for the project. Mace said volunteers and the ski area also are providing crucial help to the project, which includes sites at the top of a chairlift and a gondola.

The site at the top of Mount Werner is based at the existing Storm Peak Lab atmospheric site, operated by the Desert Research Institute, a branch of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

This is the first deployment of the second such mobile facility of the Department of the Energy. The first initially was deployed in California in 2005 and since has been used at several sites overseas.

Mace said the Steamboat study should be helpful in studying clouds that create snow. Scientists still are trying to better understand just how liquid water in clouds transitions to ice particles that fall from the sky, he said.

The study also focuses on aerosols — microscopic particles on which water condenses in clouds.

“The chemistry of those particles is very important to how the clouds and snow form,” Mace said.

Already, early and “extraordinary” Steamboat data is revealing structures in clouds that scientists didn’t know were there, Mace said.

“It’s quite exciting for us to try to understand what that data is telling us.”


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