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Steamboat experiment may help with climate models

Jack WeinsteinSteamboat Pilot & TodayVail, CO Colorado
Meteorologist Michael Ritsche talks with Storm Peak Laboratory Director Gannet Hallar about a piece of equipment on Sept. 23, 2010, in Steamboat Springs, Colo. (AP Photo/Steamboat Pilot & Today, Matt Stensland)
AP | Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado – Clouds filled the sky Sept. 23 above the Yampa Valley and rested atop Mount Werner, obscuring the view of Thunderhead Lodge from the ground below.It was the first cloudy day in some time, and it was exactly what the scientists for the Storm Peak Lab Cloud Property Validation Experiment being conducted in Steamboat Springs were hoping to see.”These are the kind of days we’re looking for as opposed to clear blue skies,” said Brad Orr, site manager for the Steamboat experiment.The purpose of the experiment is to study mixed-phase clouds, clouds made of liquid and ice, said Gannet Hallar, director of Storm Peak Laboratory. She said scientists would evaluate the shape and size of cloud particles and how light is transferred through them.The experiment, which will run until May, is funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement program and conducted in conjunction with Storm Peak Lab.”The overall goal is to improve climate models, our prediction of weather in the future,” Hallar said. “In doing that, we help with a lot of what ARM is doing in forecasting.”Scientists started setting up equipment for the experiment Sept. 13. There are three temporary sites besides the Storm Peak Lab facility at the summit of the ski area. They are located behind Yampa Valley Medical Center, next to the top of the Christie Peak Express chairlift and at Thunderhead Lodge at Steamboat Ski Area.Hallar said the Steamboat experiment is one of several mobile facilities the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement program has set up across the world. But Steamboat’s represents some unusual challenges, said Rich Coulter, a scientist working on the experiment.He said the Yampa Valley’s complex terrain and mountains make understanding climate models and taking measurements difficult. But Storm Peak Lab is in the clouds 30 percent of the time, and that’s why it was chosen for the project, Hallar said.Orr said the equipment on the ground, in two spots on the mountain and at its summit would allow scientists to create a vertical profile, to collect data from the ground up.In addition to the equipment at the mobile sites and at Storm Peak Lab, Hallar said the National Science Foundation was funding 100 hours of flight time for an aircraft to fly over the valley to collect more data, augmenting the vertical profile.”The vertical profile, it’s just the first time we’ve been able to do that on this scale, to really see what’s going on at different elevations than just at the top and to see how the mountain affects the air we sample at Storm Peak Lab,” Hallar said.The experiment, which has been planned for nearly four years, also would add radar coverage to the area, she said. Hallar said scientists would work with the National Weather Service Office in Grand Junction to help better forecast the area.Like other Storm Peak Lab projects and experiments, there will be a significant amount of outreach. Hallar said signs would be located at each research site, Steamboat Ski Area ambassadors would receive some training, brochures would be available to explain the science, and scientists would be at Thunderhead Lodge throughout the project.She said that there would be a chance for people to volunteer, helping scientists launch weather balloons daily and that fifth-graders will receive tours.”Every fifth-grader in the valley will see this,” Hallar said. “That I can say for sure.”


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