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UCAR and NCAR support international field projects..

When scientists from the United States and several South American countries converge in Chile in 2007 for an ambitious coastal climate study, they will face massive logistical challenges. These include working with customs officials to set up procedures for importing sensitive research equipment, coordinating ship and aircraft movements, locating inland sites for ground-based weather instruments, and archiving the resulting findings in uniform data sets.

To ensure the field project runs smoothly, the scientists will rely on a cadre of operations specialists from UCAR and NCAR. For a quarter-century, these specialists—many in the UCAR Joint Office for Science Support (JOSS)—have supported research projects worldwide, from the rugged Solomon Islands in the South Pacific Ocean to the forbidding tundra of the Arctic.


(photo ©UCAR)

These projects have helped spur the development of modern atmospheric science. Researchers from around the world, using networks of instruments to observe atmospheric events, have learned about such complex issues as the interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere, the role of water vapor in the generation of storms, the far-flung movement of pollutants, and the development of monsoons in Asia and the Americas.

“These field campaigns have been vital to understanding our atmosphere and the entire global climate system,” explains NCAR’s Karyn Sawyer, who has helped coordinate many of the projects. “Only by going into the field and making systematic observations can scientists confirm the accuracy of their models and gain insights into the many components that drive weather and climate.”

The field experiment, known as the VAMOS Ocean-Cloud-Atmosphere-Land Study, or VOCALS (VAMOS stands for Variability of the American Monsoon Systems), will help scientists learn more about the impacts of stratocumulus clouds on ocean temperatures and climate. This may lead to such societal benefits as improved weather forecasts for much of South America.

Participants include scientists from Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay, as well as from a number of U.S. institutions. Staffers in UCAR and NCAR will oversee logistics during the next few years by coordinating VOCALS planning meetings, making sure the field project runs smoothly in 2007, and managing the resulting data sets.

“A project office is essential for centralizing and managing the logistics of major field campaigns,” explains Carolina Vera, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Buenos Aires who co-chairs the VAMOS program. “This is particularly necessary for experiments like VOCALS and other VAMOS projects that involve several countries and investigate such important issues as the impacts of trade wind cumulus clouds on global climate or the effects of low-level atmospheric circulations on regional rainfall.”

GLOBE advances science education by augmenting teacher training, developing research protocols for students, and administering a vast database of scientific findings. (Photo by Jason Nachamkin.)

A variety of services

Our climate is driven by such diverse factors as clouds, sea-surface temperatures, atmospheric chemicals, and ground vegetation. To gain a full picture of the climate system, researchers in the field generally have to deploy a battery of instruments across a wide area.

Supporting a large field experiment can be a decade-long commitment. The experiments may involve two to three years of planning, months of intensive fieldwork, and then years of follow-up monitoring and data archiving and distribution. But the scientific payoff can be enormous.

In the early 1990s, for example, UCAR both supported and participated in an especially large-scale field project near Australia: the Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment (TOGA COARE). The project involved more than 700 scientists and other specialists from 15 nations, who used satellites, weather balloons, and specially equipped airplanes, ships, and buoys. It generated a wealth of information that has helped scientists better understand how the tropical waters of the western Pacific Ocean influence global climate by releasing vast amounts of heat into the atmosphere.

Other projects have focused on narrower topics, including the effects of dust, pollutants, and other particles on climate; the behavior of major storms; the impact of mountains on storms, air flow, and flash flooding; and the physical mechanisms of tornadoes and cyclones.

In addition to coordinating field projects, UCAR provides technical support to several leading international organizations, and it handles the logistics for hundreds of domestic and international science conferences, workshops, and other events each year. The events bring together researchers from dozens of countries. “These meetings are an important mechanism for facilitating the exchange of information,” explains Gene Martin, who directs UCAR’s meeting support services.

M<ysteries of Trade Wind Clouds


Balloon launch during RICO. (Photo by Carlye Calvin, UCAR Digital Image Library.)

Trade wind cumulus clouds, which hover over tropical oceans around the world, play an important part in the climate system. But scientists lack data to show both how the clouds affect the exchange of moist heat and chemicals between the ocean and the atmosphere and why the clouds release warm rain twice as quickly as theoretical calculations would indicate.

To resolve these mysteries, researchers from NCAR, other U.S. institutions, and more than a half-dozen other nations converged on Antigua and Barbuda at the end of 2004 for the Rain in Cumulus over the Ocean experiment (RICO). UCAR handled the logistics, which involved three aircraft, a ship, and dozens of airborne and ground instruments.

Among the challenges: using a ground-based radar to observe cloud structures and immediately communicating that information via the Internet to a research aircraft, and transporting 2 radars and 42 bottles of helium for weather balloons along flooded and unpaved roads on a largely undeveloped island.

UCAR is also managing the data, which are expected to provide unprecedented information about cumulus clouds and their impact on regional or even global climate. Scientists expect to spend about five years analyzing the findings. “The data are amazing in their variety and wealth,” says Bjorn Stevens, an NCAR affiliate scientist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was one of RICO’s principal investigators.

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The Mysteries of Trade Wind Clouds

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