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Bartlesville Home Base for Flying Weather Lab

May 12–Everyone has noticed the small, fluffy cotton-ball clouds that dot Oklahoma’s blue skies.

They are common fair weather clouds that, under the right conditions of heat and moisture, can grow into storm clouds, bringing much-needed rain during the summer growing season. They also reflect the sun’s energy back into space.

These cumulus clouds play an important role in the global climate, but their small size makes it difficult to factor their influence into global climate models.

Scientists with the Pacific Northwest National Lab want to breach that data gap. The team is in Bartlesville to uncover the secret life of shallow clouds.

Flying laboratory

Bartlesville Municipal Airport is base for the scientists and the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility’s Gulfstream 1 flying laboratory.

The ARM Climate Research Facility is funded through the United States Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Scientists propose research projects. After the proposals are reviewed, the best are selected to use the ARM Climate Research Facility, said Beat Schmid, associate director at the Pacific Northwest National Lab and ARM Aerial Facility manager.

“This Gulfstream 1 research aircraft is basically a flying laboratory. There are only like three seats left. Everything else is research instruments. We measure atmospheric components — clouds, aerosols, the tiny particles that cloud droplets form on, also known as haze, atmospheric gases and energy coming from the sun and energy coming from the Earth’s surface,” Schmid said.

The plane’s scientific equipment changes with each mission, Schmid said.

For this research, the Gulfstream 1, Schmidt said, is outfitted with these state of the art instruments.

–high frequency meteorological and radiation equipment to measure heat fluctuations

–Cloud probes to characterize properties such as droplet size distribution and liquid water content

–Trace gas monitors to differentiate between urban, industrial, agricultural and other air masses.

–Six spectrometers to identify organic compounds and aerosol composition.

–Dual-Cloud Condensation Nucleus Chamber to measure concentrations of the kernels that cause raindrops to form.

The Dual-Cloud Condensation Nucleus Chamber takes the aerosols from the plane’s collectors and creates a cloud inside the instrument, Schmid said.

“Through this we learn how readily the particles we take in form a cloud,” he said.

The data gathered by the aircraft will complement observations from the ARM Climate Research Facility’s Southern Great Plains megasite near Lamont, Oklahoma.

Why Bartlesville?

Jerome Fast of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is the project’s lead investigator.

Bartlesville’s proximity to the Southern Great Plains megasite is one of the reasons the municipal airport serves as base for flight operations, Fast said.

Northeast Oklahoma also offers ecosystem diversity.

“We are located a little bit more in the forested region of Oklahoma so we can get some contrast between the forested areas and the areas in central Oklahoma that are more pastureland and cropland,” he said.

It allows scientists to measure biogenic organic compounds from trees. The trace gases trees emit from their leaves often act as precursors to aerosols formation.

“Being here in Bartlesville allows us to be in that soup of trace gases,” Fast said.

The research will take the Gulfstream 1 south to Oklahoma City area, and west to Ponca City and Bartlesville, he said.

“We can use the plane to actually chase the clouds,” he said.

The ARM Aerial Facility also contracted with ConocoPhillips for the use of its facilities at the airport, Schmid said.

ConocoPhillips employees help move the plane in and out of the hanger. Their facilities are top notch and they have been very helpful, he said.

What will we learn?

The team arrived in Bartlesville on April 24 and will wrap up its first deployment here on May 20. It will return in the last week of August and first three weeks of September.

“The reason we are doing that,” he said, “is coupling the clouds to land surface characteristics.”

In April and May, the land will be green with new growth. In August and September, it will be drier and vegetation won’t be as green.

“We want to contrast and see if that variability in the land surface affects how the clouds form,” Fast said.

Uncovering the life cycle of shallow clouds will improve the next generation of climate models, Fast said.

It also could help scientists have a better understanding of weather, Fast said.

“A portion of these small clouds go to bigger clouds through deep convection,” Fast said. “It will help us have a better understanding of where severe weather forms and why.”

Copyright 2016 – Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, Okla.

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