Air • Planet • People – Introduction to NCAR

At the National Center
for Atmospheric Research, the sky is our laboratory. We don’t forecast the weather. We actually get inside the weather
to understand how it works. We gather data from
surface-based systems such as radars,
from aircraft systems, where we fly through weather phenomena,
and from satellites, where we observe the atmosphere
from outer space. The atmosphere is truly
a global commons. It connects all of us. It’s a very thin layer of air
that envelops the Earth. The atmosphere protects,
nurtures, and sustains life on the planet. And it contains all of the weather—
calm sunny days, rain, heat waves, severe thunderstorms,
hurricanes, flood episodes, hailstorms. The atmosphere includes ozone,
pollen, air pollution, rainbows. Our atmosphere is always changing. It’s very dynamic. It’s beautiful. And it’s very important to study
because it impacts all of our lives. Most of us when we think about climate, we think of the atmosphere
locally and the local weather. But really, the atmosphere
is a fluid surrounding all of our planet, so here at NCAR we look at the atmosphere globally and try to understand the interaction
of the various Earth systems. That includes the atmosphere,
the vegetation, the ice components of the earth,
the ocean, and the sun. The Earth system is so vast
we use a combination of satellites and computer models to help
answer various questions that we have about the system. This involves how ice ages evolved, what’s currently going on with climate,
and what impacts CO2 will have on the climate system
going forward. Our understanding of climate
change has really evolved through the years
and we now recognize it as more than a mere warming of the system. There are changes in rainfall
associated with the monsoons, the amount of tropical cyclones
that we see every year, the severity of snowstorms worldwide, in addition to the frequency of droughts. We know that changes to the landscape
affect the atmosphere. For example, when we have
large-scale wildfires, or volcanic eruptions, or dust storms, they can actually put a lot of
different chemical compounds and particles into the atmosphere that can impact air quality and climate. You walk through a pine forest
and you smell that pine tree smell, those are compounds that
actually go into the atmosphere and are perfectly natural. It’s when they start mixing with
the compounds that we emit from farms, cities, the tailpipes
of our cars or our power plants, that’s when you can get air
quality problems because they can mix in the presence
of sunlight and form smog. It’s really important as we have
changes in our air quality that we understand not only
what’s happened to the atmosphere, but what’s going on to
the biosphere as well. NCAR manages two aircraft for NSF. These aircraft basically go all over the
world collecting atmospheric measurements. The C130 can fly as close as 100 feet
above the ground. It can go really slow to make
very specific measurements of aerosol particles, cloud droplets, chemicals in the air,
atmospheric gases. We are interested in studying
the lower part of the atmosphere because that’s the world that we live in. We’re basically studying cloud
processes—rain, tornadoes, frontal systems, and various
atmospheric phenomena like that. We use the Gulf Stream V
to go as high as 51,000 feet and it can go up and down up and down
collecting atmosphere measurements and do vertical profiles
of those chemicals. We can actually measure
pollution and how the pollution gets transported around the world. We know a lot about big weather events
such as winter storms and hurricanes that we can see coming sometimes
out to a week out, but when it comes to smaller
events like thunderstorms, tornados, hailstorms,
windstorms, blizzards… forecasting those kinds of more
local phenomena on a day to day basis, we still have a long way to go,
and sometimes we only see them a few hours out in advance
so a lot of bad weather still catches people by surprise. What we are doing to try
to improve those forecasts is use computer models with very fine
resolution that can actually represent thunderstorms and are almost getting to the point of representing
tornadoes right in the model. We take the observations
of temperature, moisture, and winds from the atmosphere, we put them into the model
at discrete points, then we use the laws of physics
to project those variables ahead. And what we see is actual storms
developing from scratch. Where there was nothing 24 hours earlier, all of a sudden you get a big
squall line developing. The research that we do helps to make
forecasts better all over the world. One of the things we study
that you can’t see is wind. It flows through the mountains,
it flows over the mountains, around the mountains,
and it’s a difficult thing to forecast. We developed wind shear technologies
early on in our work here at NCAR and those were deployed
at airports around the United States. We have also developed
technologies to help pilots and airlines avoid icing,
turbulence, thunderstorms and other aviation hazards. We are also working on technologies
for the roadway system. We’re going to be providing information
to drivers about black ice, fog, high crosswinds, and hail. And we are actually going to be using
the vehicles themselves as sensors to help us collect data
across the whole roadway network and then we’ll merge it with
traditional weather data to provide early warning information to the drivers
while they are in the vehicle. High winds can be very deadly. However, high winds have a big
benefit: wind energy. So we are developing technologies
with the electrical utilities to help them predict where it’s going
to be windy and how much energy is going to be generated
from the wind turbines, and then we’ll use that to help them
integrate wind more effectively across the nation, which is going
to result in a much cleaner planet. We depend on the sun for heat and light. But there’s a lot more going on
than meets the eye. The sun has an 11-year magnetic
activity cycle. And what that basically means is that
the sun’s magnetic field is always getting churned
and tangled and twisted. And every now and again it gets
so tangled and twisted that it just can’t take
any more stress. It’s almost like the sun burps. It just can’t hold in the gas any longer
and it just explodes into space. When that material travels
towards earth, if it just happens to be
travelling in the right way, it connects with the earth’s
magnetic field and hurls down at the poles and forms what we would call
the northern or the southern lights. In extreme cases, coronal mass
ejections and flares dump so much energy into the Earth system,
they can damage satellites, they can bring satellites down,
they can damage our electrical grids and destroy the ability for us to use
our cellular communications. To understand the sun, the mass
and energy, and how the light that bathes the earth comes about,
you need to actually build ways of observing the sun from the ground. Here at NCAR we build
computational models and instruments that we get
flown on satellites and that we put on the top of mountains. We have models of the entire
Earth system. That would include the ocean,
the land surface, sea ice, and so forth. Within these models, grid boxes
cover the surfaces of the earth, and the vertical levels actually
go from the bottom of the sea to the top of the atmosphere. Within each grid box,
the calculations are performed that describe the physical and
chemical properties of the system. We might have millions of grid
boxes covering say the atmospheric component of
the Earth. All of these modeling activities require
very large computing resources and very large storage systems
in order to handle the data. We can have as many as 100,000
processors talking to each other, interconnected by a very
high-speed network. In many way’s it’s analogous
to the way that the neurons in your brain are connected together
to form a system capable of thought. It’s an unimaginable amount of
computing power. In the social science area,
we’re interested in how we can integrate the use of those climate models
to better understand the connections between weather, climate, and health. For example, we know that
weather and climate affect the lifecycle of mosquitoes, how long they live and how
quickly a virus replicates. So we’re looking at the
potential for the mosquito that carries Dengue fever to move
its range to a higher elevation, potentially into Mexico City,
and also to move further north in the United States in response
to a change in climate. The heat, it is relentless.
It continues… We are also working
in the United States with forecasting extreme heat events, with looking at air pollution, air quality events,
and also pollen counts. High temperatures of 108.
Ozone alert Tuesday… The atmosphere of our planet
has no boundaries, so the science that we do
has no boundaries either. It’s all connected. It all moves around all of us and so
the science that we do spans the globe. In fact, our science even goes
out into space. We do a lot of work on
the Earth-Sun connection and so even where the atmosphere ends,
our science continues. We do science in communities
around the world, using local knowledge to address
global issues. NCAR collaborates
with over 100 universities, so we have many people visiting
us here. We have students,
community groups, teachers, professional researchers,
all of whom come to work with us here at NCAR and experience our science. And they take that new knowledge
home with them to their communities and their
classrooms and their labs. Nearly 100,000 visitors come
here to experience this thrill of hands-on learning
that we have in our exhibits. The founder of this lab,
Walter Orr Roberts, said that it’s a privilege
to be able to do science. And in exchange for that privilege, it’s our responsibility to engage
and involve people in science for the benefit of everyone. It’s incredibly important to bring the
younger generations of scientists here. They’re our future.

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