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.