Exemplifying Experiential Education

An undergraduate course was taught at University of North Dakota by Dr. Gretchen Mullendore during Spring 2012 titled Forecasting/verification of convective regimes for the Deep Convective Clouds and Chemistry (DC3) field campaign.  The course examined of the objectives and motivation of the DC3 field campaign, and included discussions about particular challenges involved in making chemical transport measurements as well as hands-on forecasting exercises for all three DC3 regions.

Six UND undergraduate students traveled to University of Alabama, Huntsville, to work with UND graduate student Brandon Bigelbach and the DC3 UAH team, headed by Dr. Larry Carey. During the campaign, a hands-on forecasting internship was also held at UND, led by Dr. Jeff Tilley, that gave both graduate and undergraduate students a chance to do forecasting for the campaign and listen in on live forecast discussion.

Now that the course, and the project, are over, the students had time to reflect on their experience and the comment on the positive impact that amazing experiential educational opportunity will have to their education and overall career path.

“This project was a great experience because it was something I never had the opportunity to partake in during my undergraduate studies. Getting out into the field and immersing myself in weather and in this project was a perfect complement to my research, which is entirely computer modeling.”
     – Brandon Bigelbach, Atmospheric Sciences graduate student

“The DC3 Field Campaign was a great experience because it provided me with an awesome opportunity to meet and work with other students and scientists from all over the country.  Every person brought his or her own area of expertise to the campaign, and together we were able to accomplish the goals of the campaign.”
      – Scott Rowe, Atmospheric Sciences major, graduated Spring 2012 (just starting graduate school at University of Iowa)

“Being able to be a part of the DC3 field project has been a very valuable experience, especially as an undergraduate. The majority of my work at UND has been computer based research, so being able to be a part of the field work was great exposure to valuable skills that I will be able to use in future career opportunities.”
       – Melissa Becker, Environmental Geography major, expected graduation May 2013

“Being able to gain forecasting skills through the class and then having the opportunity to relate it to an actual field setting has been an incredible experience. It has helped show me the great opportunities available in the field of atmospheric science and given me valuable experience for my future career.”
       – Nicole Bart, Atmospheric Sciences major, expected graduation Dec 2012

“Participating in DC3 was an incredible experience because it allowed me to see the challenges of applying idealized information from the classroom to the real world. Working as part of a team to overcome these challenges was a great opportunity and has increased my enthusiasm for research meteorology.”
      – Justin Weber, Atmospheric Sciences major, expected graduation May 2013

“It was a thrilling experience to work with my fellow friends and colleagues on this project in Alabama. The UAH folks were great and I appreciate all of their hospitality. It was a great learning experience bringing together so many people from across globe to work together on one common goal. This experience has strengthened my choice to continue to pursue atmospheric research and I hope to be a part of more collaborative efforts like this in the future.”
     – Mariusz Starzec, Atmospheric Sciences major, expected graduation Dec 2012

One more flight

by Frank Flocke (NCAR/ACD)

Image taken from the NSF/NCAR GV forward looking camera during the last research flight for DC3.

Today, June 30, 2012, is the final science flight for the NCAR/NSF GV in the DC3 project. We will have flown 22 missions out of Salina taking us to Colorado, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, and to Alabama, to sample convective systems (thunderstorms) in these regions.

Some flights took us to other areas – mostly over the Central and Eastern US – to sample air that had been impacted by convection the day before and/or look at the air chemistry during or after one day of chemical processing.

On Thursday we flew our last thunderstorm mission, as it happens, to Colorado. That convective system moved on to cause all the destruction in the Washington, DC area last night.

Today’s flight is partially dedicated to the calibration of some meteorology and state parameter instruments, requiring a set of special aircraft maneuvers, before the GV returns home to its base at Rocky Mountain Metro Airport in Broomfield, Colorado.

We all learned a lot, met new colleagues, and, to different degrees, learned to appreciate Central Kansas. It was fun working together in DC3, and here in Salina.

Two Months in Central Kansas

by Frank Flocke (NCAR/ACD)

I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly thrilled about spending late spring and early summer in central Kansas. I had been through Salina a couple of times before and experienced the intense summer heat and the often very strong southerly winds that gave the State of Kansas its name. I now have to admit that during the 8 weeks I spent here I have grown to appreciate the landscape, the character of the region, and the friendly people here. I have not grown to appreciate the relentless wind however.

Those of us who visited the Smoky Hill River Festival, which is the major event for Salina in the summer, enjoyed the great music, arts and crafts, and the Midwestern food offerings (if only visually).

Beautiful golden wheat field just outside of Salina, KS.

Many of us first arrived here in early May, when the summer winds were not yet blowing and the temperatures were still cool in the mornings and not too hot during the day. During their free time, people working on the DC3 project went golfing, swimming and boating in nearby reservoirs, or enjoyed bicycling the region, which was also my primary activity outside of project duties. I have ridden most of the paved roads within ~25 miles of Salina, as well as a number of unpaved roads (most of the gridded roads here are gravel). While crop fields and farms mostly dominate the landscape to the S and E of Salina, there is more ranching and grasslands out west and northwest of town. Bicycling through the wheat fields before harvest on a sunny morning was very enjoyable, and so was watching the many birds near the ponds and in the fields as well as raptors circling overhead. In late May and early June wheat harvest began and it was fun to ride through the fields and exchange waves with the farmers working the fields. Corn was soon planted and one could not help but notice it having grown a foot or more when riding by a week or so later. There is not much traffic on the backroads and the few drivers around here are generally very courteous and careful which contribute to making bicycling here even more fun. Some of the small nearby towns that can be visited by bike are Brookville, Kipp, Gypsum, Herington, Abilene, Salemsborg, Lindsborg (my favorite for late morning coffee), Falun, Marquette, and others.

On a windy day I would make it a rule to go out into the wind to make the way back a bit easier. As a result I ended up in Lindsborg quite often (located to the S of Salina), or maybe it was because it’s such a pleasant little town with a good coffee shop. The southerly winds have taken root and have been so strong  at times that it takes more than twice as long to go S than it takes to return the same distance to the N.

For the last two weeks temperatures have reached the high 100s to 110 almost daily here, making me thinking more often about a ride on a cool morning or evening back in Colorado.

Teacher Postcards from the Field

A local Alabama science teacher recently had the opportunity to visit and take part in the DC3 field project with the ground-based facilites at the University of Alabama – Huntsville (UAH). Enjoy her first-hand account of learning about the DC3 project and participating in research operations.
By Kelly Ford
East Limestone High School, Athens, Alabama
Science Teacher and UCAR/RETI participant

A science team from the University of Alabama in Huntsville has been given the opportunity to participate in a field project with NCAR along with science groups from Colorado and Oklahoma/Texas. The project is called DC3 (Deep Convective Clouds and Chemistry) studies how the atmospheric composition changes as a result of a thunderstorms. Some ground-based research operations consist of launching weather balloons near a position that will possibly contain a thunderstorm in a few hours, and then more are launched after the thunderstorm passes.

These weather balloons carry radiosondes that measure temperature, barometric pressure, dew point, wind speed and direction. They are also able to measures the lower free convection (LFC) level. When a radiosonde is released, the weather balloon carries it upwards at about 385 meters/minute and the balloon bursts at an altitude of around 40,000-70,000 feet.

A Day in the Field :: Tuesday, May 29 2012

8:30AM – Conference room meeting at UAH
Every operation morning, the groups from Alabama, Oklahoma/Texas, Colorado, and the flight team from Salina, Kansas, hold a joint teleconference to discuss weather conditions, equipment status, and the plan for the day. At this Tuesday meeting, the decision was made to fly the planes from Salina to Alabama because of the probability of storms in the North Alabama area.

10:00AM – Head to Ardmore rest area to prepare for 12:00 launch
Since storms were anticipated in to begin in the early afternoon, the decision was made to launch a radiosonde near the Alabama/Tennessee state line. The rest area exit on I-65 had been used by this group and it was decided to use this location again. The radiosonde van and a chase car were loaded and I rode along with the team.

11:00AM – Take stock in van

The MIPS van – Mobile Integrated Profiling System.

As time came closer for launch, the van was opened and an inventory made of materials needed for possible launches from this rest area. Preparations were made with the balloon, radiosonde, parachute, and fuel tank for the helium. It was very hot and humid. There was some convection beginning just south of the launch position but nothing very promising. The balloon was inflated, equipment attached, and the team was very generous in letting me release the first balloon of the day.

11:56AM – I got to launch a weather balloon!!

Weather balloon being prepared for launch by University of Alabama students and Kelly Ford, local science teacher.

I was very surprised at how quickly the balloon gained altitude. We were only able to follow it visually for a couple of minutes. After a launch, the team follows the trajectory and monitors the data being sent from the radiosonde with a laptop mounted in the front of the van. Danielle is monitoring the data in the following picture while Mario and Curtis try and stay out of the heat. Data is loaded very quickly from the radiosonde to the DC3 project catalog for access by teams working on this and affiliated projects.

After a launch and when the team is satisfied that the data is loading properly from the radiosonde, the team waits for instructions from the planning group at UAH. When we left the morning meeting, the plan had been to have the planes in the North Alabama area by around 3:30. Word was later sent that the planes had been prepared to come but were told by air traffic control in Atlanta that they would not be allowed in the Memphis or Atlanta air space due to heavy re-routing traffic throughout the Southeast US caused by strong storms associated with Beryl. I could tell that the team was disappointed. It was going to be a good day for data but due to circumstances outside of their control, the afternoon activities fell through. (The planes used for this field research need to stair step, fly spirals, and fly irregular patterns so are not able to file an exact flight plan.) As the planes are flying these irregular patterns, they are finding the top and bottom of the storm while measuring the atmosphere’s composition of NOx, CO, CO2, CH4, and O3 as these go into and out of convective storms.

4:15PM – Head back to UAH for a second radiosonde launch

Preparing to launch the second weather balloon.

The team was told to head back to UAH for an afternoon plan revision. It was decided to launch a second radiosonde from the UAH site as a second pre-storm evaluation.  This data was also needed by the Atmospheric Boundary Identification and Delineation Experiment (ABIDE), another group working with DC3. ABIDE looks for the transition boundary in storms and studies why and how thunderstorms initiate.

As an aside, I have really enjoyed observing (and helping out where I could) with the radiosonde team. This group of young meteorology students has a passion for research work, is dedicated to doing things well, work well as a team, and is very knowledgeable about this field of study. I joined them again on Thursday for a launch from Moulton, Alabama, and had hoped to join them again, but good convection never developed. This has been a great experience for me and I hope to join them again before heading to Colorado for the NCAR Research Experience Teacher’s Institute (RETI) in July.

Deep Freeze in Salina, Kansas

Cryogens and their use during DC3
by Frank Flocke (NCAR/ACD)

Frank Flocke carries a flask full of dry ice from the NSF/NCAR GV post-flight. Photo by Alison Rockwell NCAR/EOL.

Cryogens, such as dry ice and liquid nitrogen, are used in a number of ways on our aircraft during DC3. They are used for sampling air with our instruments as well as for keeping some heat sensitive equipment cold during operation.

Liquid nitrogen exists at a temperature of −196 °C or −321 °F, only 77 degrees K above absolute zero. It is often used for concentrating air samples for chromatography and mass spectrometry and we have one of these instruments on the NCAR/NSF GV aircraft. At liquid nitrogen temperature, almost all atmospheric trace gases are frozen out, but oxygen and nitrogen are not. This allows for extraction of gases of interest from the air without having to contend with oxygen and nitrogen, which comprise 99% of the sample volume. By drawing air through a small tube cooled with liquid nitrogen, trace gases from samples of several liters of air can be concentrated into a few milliliters or less. This small volume can be directly introduced into analytical instruments and the components analyzed.

Shipments of cryogens needed for the aircraft instruments are brought to the Operations Center hangar several times a week. Photo by Alison Rockwell (NCAR/EOL)

Cryogens are also used as a coolant for some very sensitive infrared light detectors. Some of these detectors need to be cooled with liquid nitrogen, but on the GV we use some photomultiplier tubes that are sensitive into the infrared and are cooled with dry ice. The detector tubes are built aluminum housing, which is well insulated to the outside and filled with about 10 pounds of dry ice. Dry ice exists at a temperature of -78°C or −109 °F and does not melt but evaporates directly into carbon dioxide gas, which makes it an ideal cooling agent for this application.

Dry ice is also used to remove unwanted water vapor from air samples that are analyzed on the GV. The instrument used to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) needs dry sampling air to function accurately. A bath of ground up dry ice floating in a Flourinert liquid (a heavy, engineered liquid that is not flammable and non toxic, but still liquid at dry ice temperature) is used to cool a trap made from highly polished stainless steel through which the sampling air is drawn. At dry ice temperature, essentially all water vapor is removed from the air but the carbon dioxide and methane quantitatively pass through the trap. This way we can deliver a dry sample to our instrument without compromising the accuracy of our measurements.

Formaldehyde…Not Just for Biology Class!

Chemical Importance of Formaldehyde (CH2O) Measurements for DC3
by Alan Fried (NCAR/EOL)

Formaldehyde (CH2O) is an intermediate oxidation product of most organic compounds that are injected into the atmosphere. As such, detailed measurement-model comparisons of CH2O can be used to indicate the presence of missing organic compounds that are not measured and/or not correctly modeled due to an incomplete hydrocarbon oxidation mechanism.

Alan Fried monitors formaldehyde aboard the NASA DC-8 during a DC3 test flight. Photo by Alison Rockwell NCAR/EOL.

When CH2O decomposes it produces ozone and hydrogen radicals, and thus any CH2O convected to the upper troposphere/lower stratosphere (UT/LS) by thunderstorms can be important source of these species. Presently, our knowledge of how and the extent to which soluble gases are transported to the UT/LS are not well understood. Formaldehyde is one such gas.  Our fast, accurate, and sensitive measurements of this gas on both the NSF/NCAR GV and the NASA DC-8 will provide much needed new measurements to test and modify existing theories of solubility and chemical transport mechanisms to the UT/LS.

Chasing the Outflow

by Frank Flocke (NCAR/ACD)

Late last week we took advantage of the chance to do our first outflow chasing flight. One of the science goals for DC3 is to assess the impact of deep convection on the upper tropospheric chemistry and composition. Since the air continues to be photo-chemically processed (during the day) as well as mixed with surrounding air as it is transported away, it is important to try and sample the air again the following day to see how it has changed and whether we can explain these changes with what we know about the processes in the upper troposphere.

NSF/NCAR GV sampling outflow during RF04 over Oklahoma. Photo by Chris Cantrell.

Friday, May 25 & Saturday, May 26 presented the chance to do that. We had flown an isolated, large area of convection on Friday over Oklahoma. Extensive sampling of the storm outflow at around 11-12 km altitude had given us a pretty good idea what the air mass lofted by the convection looked like. The meteorological and chemical transport models predicted winds in that region of the atmosphere that would transport the air we sampled on Thursday to an area over central Illinois reaching South into western KY/TN, and located at 35,000-40,000 feet altitude. This is an area we can easily reach with our aircraft and the models showed that the air mass was going to be reasonably well defined.

NSF/NCAR GV “bowtie” loops over the central US.

So off we went again on Saturday afternoon to try and find the air over the area predicted by the models. Both aircraft flew large bowtie-shaped patterns centered over southwestern Illinois, aligned slightly differently and flown at different altitudes covering the predicted altitude range of the air mass. Both aircraft were able to sample air that had the chemical signature we would expect from convective influence and the sampled air also was a match with respect to some of the chemical species sampled the day prior. Precise analysis of the data will tell us more about the outcome of this endeavor, but it was likely successful and we can now more confidently plan for the next plume chase in the coming days and weeks.

Satellite Data in Support of DC3

by Frank Flocke (NCAR/ACD)


A variety of satellite observations are used for DC3 science. Primarily, weather observations from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) are used for both forecasting and aircraft guidance once a mission is launched. Visual and infrared imagery are used to identify cloud extent and provide crucial information the altitude of the cloud tops and anvil shape. Together with the ground radar observations this is used for guidance of the aircraft to target storms (flight altitudes and horizontal distance to convection). Satellite imagery is also used for real-time observation of surrounding convection so the aircraft can safely navigate in the operations area.

Carbon Monoxide (CO) from IASI from May 26, 2012. The huge New Mexico (Whitewater-Baldy) fire is obvious, with the smoke plume being carried eastward. Elevated CO from the wildfires in western Mexico is also evident. Blank areas indicate where cloud coverage is too think to allow retrievals of CO. The IASI retrievals and images are being produced at NCAR by Helen Worden, Gene Francis and Debbie Mao.

A second type of satellite observations are chemical tracer measurements available from space. Tracer products like tropospheric CO (from the Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere [MOPITT] and Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer [IASI] instruments) are mainly used for forecasting the large-scale chemical environment in which a flight is taking place. These observations can be ingested into models to help more precise forecasting of large-scale pollution plumes affecting an area of interest. Satellite observations can also be used to identify outflow from large urban areas or larger wildfires. NOx observations from space are made by the Ozone Monitoring Instument (OMI) and Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment-2 (GOME-2) instruments. These can also be used to identify outflow from large urban areas but also to identify NOx produced from lightning (see blog on chemical measurements from aircraft) and its transport in the upper troposphere.

For downwind flights, tropospheric NO2 column data from GOME2 is used to adjust flight plans based on the estimated location of NO2 sampled by the aircraft from the previous day’s convective outflow. The dashed red oval indicates the area of enhanced NO2 targeted for a downwind research flight on 26 May 2012.

NO2 observations from space are made by the OMI and GOME2 instruments. These can also be used to identify outflow from large urban areas but also to identify NO2 produced from lightning (see blog on chemical measurements from aircraft) and its transport in the upper troposphere. The GOME-2 overpass (on the European MetOp-A satellite) is at about 9:30 AM local standard time. Therefore, DC3 can utilize these data to determine the location and magnitude of lightning NOx produced during the afternoon and evening prior to the observation. This information can be used to guide the aircraft to observe the storm outflow after a day of photochemical aging. The OMI instrument on NASA’s Aura satellite makes an overpass at about 1:30 PM. These data become available by late afternoon and can be used to make adjustments to the downwind aircraft flights. OMI tropospheric column NO2, as well as a specialized lightning NO2 (LNO2) product are produced. The LNO2 product is generated by subtracting an estimate of the anthropogenic pollution component from the total tropospheric column NO2amount.

The contribution of lightning NO2 based on tropospheric column NO2 data from OMI on 23 May 2012. Trajectory analysis of the OMI LNO2 products indicate that some of the enhanced NO2 features are related to wildfires and agricultural burning.

Chemical Tracer Measurements for DC3

by Frank Flocke (NCAR/ACD)

The Community Airborne Research Instrumentation (CARI) Group at NCAR supports some of the “basic” chemical tracer measurements on the NSF/NCAR aircraft.  Any investigator leading a study and using our aircraft can request these instruments. Our instruments fly frequently because the chemical tracers are used in many different ways to provide scientists with information abut the type of air mass they are sampling.

The aircraft is a flying laboratory with air-inlets and particle detectors attached to the exterior and under the wings.  Photo by Alison Rockwell (NCAR/EOL)

For DC3 some of our measurements are very important for the success of the mission. CARI provides measurements of Ozone (O3), Nitrogen oxides (NOx), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Methane (CH4).

Nitrogen oxides are of central importance for DC3, since one of the ways it is produced is by lightning inside thunderstorms. The energy released in a lightning strike is large enough to split the Nitrogen and Oxygen molecules in the air into atoms, some of which recombine to produce Nitrogen Monoxide, NO. In the atmosphere, NO reacts with ozone to form Nitrogen Dioxide, NO2. We measure both of these trace gases once every second on the GV. The sum of NO and NO2 is called NOx. One of the goals of DC3 is to better quantify the amount of NOx produced by lightning and its role in the chemistry of the upper atmosphere.

As described elsewhere in this blog (and also on the DC3 home page), thunderstorms act somewhat like a giant vacuum, because the physics driving the storm is bringing air from close to the Earth’s surface up to the top of the troposphere in a relatively short period of time (10s of minutes). Human activities on the ground also release NOx into the atmosphere (NOx tends to be higher near urban centers since much of it comes from transportation and power generation) and so can forest or agricultural fires. If this NOx is pumped up into the upper atmosphere by a thunderstorm passing overhead, we use the other chemical measurement to quantify how much is coming from lightning and how much was transported up from the surface. Combustion processes in engines and fires always also produce CO together with the NO­x, but lightning does not produce CO. Also, the CO2 mixing ratio at the surface is almost always different from the CO2 up high. CO2 can also be used to identify aircraft contrails, which also contain NOx emitted from the jet engines. This way we can use the chemical tracers together to calculate the relative amounts of NOx in the upper troposphere coming from lightning and from human activity.

DC3 schematic of how the aircraft coordinate research flights on a targeted storm, along with ground-based instruments. Image courtesy of NCAR.

The NASA DC-8 often samples the air near the surface simultaneously with the NSF/NCAR GV sampling the upper air outflow from the storms. This is very important for “matching” the inflow and outflow air, but it also requires the instruments on both aircraft to perform in the same way and cross-calibrate them when possible. Flights together in close formation are planned to make sure all measurements compare well and can be used as one unified data set. More on that later.

There are other chemical tracers measured on both aircraft, which we can use to make even more detailed assessments of tracers and their origin, but that is material for yet another blog post down the line.

Guiding Aircraft to Targeted Storms

by Frank Flocke (NCAR/ACD)

While the planes are in the air they are constantly updated about the weather and storm situation from the ground and guided to the target area.

Daily planning meetings take place in order to decide where flights will take place – generally over one of the three ground-based research locations in Colorado, Oklahoma, or Alabama. Photo by Alison Rockwell (NCAR/EOL)

Before take-off a nominal flight plan is filed, which is tailored for the type of storm sampling we will most likely do that day, in the general area where the models have predicted storms to occur.

The high-resolution weather models we use for our forecasting are excellent tools and very good at their job, but forecasting the exact location of a storm 12 to 24 hours ahead of time is very difficult.

If storms are forecast for on of our three target areas in NE Colorado, SW Oklahoma and N Texas, and in N Alabama (see DC-3 outreach website for more info on these areas), the lead science team decides to send the aircraft to the area. Take-off can occur before storms have developed, because transit times from our base in Salina, KS are in the 1-1.5 hour range.

DC3 Operations Center, looking at live data streams while also monitoring weather conditions to guide the aircraft for optimal data collection. Photo by Alison Rockwell (NCAR/EOL)

Several people then set up shop in our Salina Operations Center. Two of the lead scientists direct operations while a team of Now-Casters constantly analyze data coming in from the ground facilities in the target area and feed it to the lead scientists. This data includes 3-D maps of lightning as well as research grade high-resolution radar, allowing precise mapping of convective activity to be sampled. There are also mobile units deployed on the ground, collecting radar data, launching radiosondes, etc.

There is one dedicated communications person for each aircraft, using instant messaging (“chat”) software to relay the latest information to the mission scientist on board each aircraft. I have been doing this job for the NCAR GV. The communications person also plots and translates new flight coordinates and relays them up to the aircraft for the pilots to use. We are aided by one of the navigators from the NASA DC-8 with this job. The GV also has a mission coordinator on board who communicates directly with the pilots on the GV ensuring the safety of the aircraft and guides the aircraft with the on-board weather radar and lightning sensors. The DC-8 also has a mission coordinator as well as a navigator on board. The pilots communicate with Air Traffic Control and try to make the flight plan work as best as possible. Finally, one of the EOL mission managers is also communicating from the ground with the mission coordinator on board the aircraft, keeping an eye on the larger scale, approach and departure corridors around major airports, larger scale storm development, etc.

The kind of flying we do is not something that Air Traffic Control normally deals with. The pilots and mission manager folks have been visiting with ATC supervisors before the experiment started and briefed them on our plans but it’s often still a challenge for ATC to “fit” us in between and along with the commercial air traffic routes. This is especially difficult when there is weather around, which is always true when we go out…