UW Today

September 12, 2016

UW scientist helping direct NASA field study of clouds off Namibia

News and Information

plane on tarmac

NASA’s P-3 research aircraft is collecting observations during the month-long effort.NASA

Tiny aerosol particles, emitted by everything from tailpipes to trees, float above us reflecting sunlight, seeding clouds and absorbing solar heat. How exactly this happens – and how it might change in the future – is one of the biggest uncertainties in how humans are influencing climate.

person in plane with laptop

Rob Wood acts as flight scientist on a Sept. 6 flight, coordinating between scientists and crew and deciding where to fly next.Sarah Doherty/University of Washington

University of Washington scientists are part of a NASA field campaign, Observations of Aerosols Above Clouds and their Interactions, or ORACLES, that is flying research planes around clouds off the coast of Namibia to see how smoke and clouds interact.

“The Namibians are being wonderful hosts and are really helping to make this a success,” said deputy principal investigator Robert Wood, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences.

Wood plans to be in the field until late September. Sarah Doherty, a research scientist with the UW Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, is also among the roughly 100 participating scientists.

Fires burning on African savannas generate smoke that contains aerosol particles. This smoke rises high in the atmosphere and blows west off the coast, then drops down toward the cloud layer. The interaction between air moisture and smoke pollution is complex and not well understood.

The dark blue band at the top is a smoke layer above the clouds, as seen from the research aircraft.

The dark blue band at the top is a smoke layer above the clouds, as seen from the research aircraft.Sarah Doherty/University of Washington

“We still have a lot of pretty fundamental questions unanswered, such as whether the smoke and cloud layers are clearly separated, or, alternatively, if smoke particles end up mixing into the cloud deck and changing the clouds’ properties,” said Michael Diamond, a graduate student in Wood’s group who is participating in the campaign.

From August 29 through late September, NASA’s ER-2 and P-3 research aircraft will take off roughly every other day from the project’s base in Walvis Bay, Namibia. The planes will fly at altitudes between sea level and about 3 miles elevation with instruments that look up and down to see how smoke and clouds interact. The team plans to return for follow-up measurements in 2017 and 2018.

Observations could help understand, for example, how forest fires burning inland affect the coastal cloud layer in other parts of the world, and how changes in air quality and global warming will act together on regional weather patterns.

The principal investigator is Jens Redemann of NASA’s Ames Research Center. Other partners on the $30 million, five-year NASA project include the Namibia University of Science and Technology and Namibia’s Gobabeb Research & Training Centre.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to interact with and learn from scientists not only from across the United States, but also from Namibia and South Africa,” Diamond said.

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For more information, contact Wood at robwood@atmos.washington.edu and Diamond at diamond2@uw.edu.

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