For the next 14 months, a group of atmospheric scientists from throughout the country will converge on Houston, Texas, to seek answers to a difficult question: Do flecks of soot, dust, smoke, and other particles floating in the Earth's atmosphere have a role in determining the severity of thunderstorms?

The new information might help improve weather forecasting and give essential data for projections about how aerosols will impact Earth's future temperature.

Hurricane Ida

(Photo : Photo from wikimedia.org)

The deployment in Houston will also give precise information on local air quality. In addition, it will provide scientists with a unique chance to investigate the impacts of industry, automobile emissions, and the built environment on weather and climate as part of extensive field research in a metropolitan region.

"We want to know how aerosols, the tiny particles that water condenses onto to form cloud droplets, influence the physics of deep convective clouds-the kind that frequently shoots lightning and pours rain-and then how those same weather conditions affect local aerosol characteristics and urban air quality," said Michael Jensen, a meteorologist at the DOE's Brookhaven Nation Laboratory. TRacking Aerosol Convection Interactions ExpeRiment (TRACER) is the name of a study being conducted by DOE's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility.

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Collaborative Study in Houston

TRACER experts from Brookhaven, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and other universities will collect data on aerosols and atmospheric features for a year, working closely with researchers from the University of Houston. At four locations immediately outside the city, the team will deploy sensors supplied and controlled by ARM. Additional partners from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and other organizations will join the team during an intensive study period from June to September 2022 to catch the height of Houston's summer storm season.

Houston is the ideal location for the research because of its humid subtropical climate, frequent isolated convective storms, and various industrial and natural aerosol sources.

Particles in the Air

Two gases also heavier than air are Hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide
(Photo : Getty Images)

"Because we live on the coast, forecasting the weather is difficult," said James Flynn, a research associate professor in the University of Houston's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. "There are many thunderstorms; there is pollution and some natural sources of small particles."

Dust, sea salt, diesel engine particles, soot from a power plant and refinery combustion operations, heavy urban traffic, and even smoke from wildfires in California and Colorado are examples.

According to certain studies, such aerosols can alter cloud lifecycles, delaying the beginning of precipitation. If this happens, water droplets may get larger as clouds develop. "And when they do fall," Flynn explained, "it's a gully washer."

TRACER data will help us better understand these processes and anticipate when the deluges will happen.

The "first ARM Movable Facility," or AMF1, is a collection of ARM devices housed in ten mobile shipping containers. Many of these sensors, notably an Aerosol Observing System built at Brookhaven Lab, has collected atmospheric data in sites worldwide, from the Arctic to the Tropics.

Duration and Purpose of the Study

Hurricane Ida Bears Down On Louisiana As A Major Storm
(Photo : Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

During the intensive research period next summer, scientists from TRACER and partner organizations will also install more equipment near Guy, Texas, southwest of the city. Two tethered balloon systems will carry equipment to monitor winds, tiny aerosol particles, and ozone in the lowest levels of the atmosphere, one at the Guy location and the other at Smith Point on the east side of Galveston Bay. The data collected on the shores of Galveston Bay will be crucial in determining how the bay affects local air circulation.

Anyone who wants to study the data acquired by ARM will be able to do so for free. TRACER data will also be useful in gaining a better knowledge of how storms originate and how long they endure.

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