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Chasing Storms in the Stratosphere: OU Teams Up With NASA to Study Climate

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Chasing Storms in the Stratosphere: OU Teams Up With NASA to Study Climate

ER-2 high altitude research aircraft
Courtesy: NASA. Scientists are using NASA's ER-2 high altitude research aircraft to study the atmospheric effects of powerful summer thunderstorms that erupt over the U.S.

A group of University of Oklahoma researchers are teaming up with NASA to study how intense summer thunderstorms are affecting the Earth’s atmosphere and climate using a unique research aircraft over the skies of the central United States.

It’s a $30 million research project employing NASA’s high-altitude research aircraft that recently took its final data-gathering deployments in June out of Salina, Kansas, where OU researchers were on hand to direct the plane’s flight path.

“We’re trying to understand in a holistic way what these storms are doing to the stratosphere,” said Cameron Homeyer, associate professor and associate director for graduate programs in the OU School of Meteorology. “They put a lot of water in the stratosphere. Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas. Whenever you increase water in the stratosphere, that can impact climate.”

The stratosphere is the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere, beginning at about six miles from the ground and reaching upward to a height of about 30 miles. It encompasses the ozone layer – the protective layer of the atmosphere that absorbs ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Intense storms that regularly occur in this region of the U.S. can penetrate deep into the lower stratosphere, carrying pollutants that can change the chemical composition of this atmospheric layer, including ozone levels, Homeyer said.

Being aware of these changes could help scientists predict extreme weather events.

The ER-2 research aircraft is a NASA-modified spy plane that can reach altitudes of up to 70,000 feet. The plane served as a flying laboratory, outfitted with measurement tools to collect the necessary data to study possible chemical changes, such as radiation balance, or air quality, that could have taken place in the stratosphere because of the storms.

The research campaign known as DCOTSS, or Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere, is being led by Kenneth Bowman of Texas A&M University. It was originally funded by NASA in 2019, but field work was halted due to the pandemic, Homeyer said.

When the program was given the green light to begin field work in 2021, Homeyer and his team of graduate students oversaw forecasting of storms based on weather models, planning the plane’s flight path, and later, data analysis.

The first round of approximately 10 flights took place in the summer of 2021, with the remaining nine completed this year in May and June.

Portrait Dr. Cameron Homeyer.
University of Oklahoma professor and researcher Dr. Cameron Homeyer.

Homeyer and the OU team made sure the aircraft would be in the right place at the right time to collect the needed data wherever the storms occurred.

Andrea Gordon, who earned her Bachelor of Science in meteorology from OU in 2021, is now a second-year graduate student in the School of Meteorology and a part of the OU research team.

She began working on the project as an undergraduate student through her involvement in Convection, Chemistry and Climate, research group led by Homeyer that studies various aspects of atmospheric sciences.

She is one of two graduate students who have consistently been a part of the research effort.

Gordon helped to predict where storms would end up and was a trajectory forecaster in the field in the 2021 and 2022 flights.

“As a trajectory forecaster, I looked at where material from overshooting storms would travel so that we could successfully sample it with the ER-2,” she said.

Now, she and the team will begin analyzing data from the flights to explore how the storms can impact the transport of gases between the stratosphere and the lower atmospheric level, the troposphere. This data will be an important part of her master’s thesis, she said.

Gordon’s involvement in the campaign from her early days as an undergraduate student has given her an insight into what it takes to complete a large research campaign like this one.

“Being a part of DCOTSS has been such a wonderful experience,” Gordon said. “It has been eye opening to be surrounded by so many different innovative scientists who use teamwork, curiosity and open-mindedness to learn more about how thunderstorms can impact chemistry in the stratosphere, and ultimately, climate. This project has shown me how necessary collaboration is for success.”

Scientists haven’t had a good understating of how these storms can impact the stratosphere, Homeyer said. But now that the flights are completed and the data is in, the team at OU can take the next step.

“We’ve collected a tremendous amount of data; that was the primary goal of the mission,” Homeyer said.

Data should be released and in the public domain within six months, and study papers could be published beginning in 2023.


By Jaimy Jones

Article Published: Wednesday, August 24, 2022