CU-Boulder Researchers To Fly Environmental Sensor In Major DOE Climate Study

June 4, 2007

An environmental sensing instrument developed by the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center for Environmental Technology will be flown over Oklahoma several times in June as part of a major field study of climate and weather sponsored by the Department of Energy.

The Cloud and Land Surface Interaction Campaign and a coordinated experiment known as the Cumulus Humilis Aerosol Processing Study involve a combination of aircraft and ground-based measurements to enable researchers to capture the full breadth of fluctuations in carbon dioxide, moisture, aerosol particles, cloud properties and radiative energy from within the Earth's surface to the top of the atmospheric boundary layer.

CU-Boulder researchers plan to fly their Polarimetric Scanning Radiometer aboard a NASA P-3 aircraft at 26,000 feet to map the soil moisture and observe its effect on the formation of clouds and rainfall. Plans call for the P-3 to make seven flights between June 9 and June 30, according to Al Gasiewski, P-3 mission scientist and director of the Center for Environmental Technology.

The Center for Environmental Technology, based in the CU-Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science, has developed a cadre of advanced environmental sensing equipment for use on ships, manned and unmanned aircraft, spacecraft and ground-based platforms in extreme environments such as the Arctic.

The Polarimetric Scanning Radiometer, which has seen more than 800 hours of flying time in the last decade on various types of aircraft, uses extremely sensitive microwave receivers to produce high-resolution images of the earth's oceans, land, ice, clouds, snowpack and precipitation. The images are used to develop better weather and climate models, which lead to improved forecasting abilities.

In the current DOE study, the Polarimetric Scanning Radiometer will be flown out of Oklahoma City over a large swath of central Oklahoma, about 17,000 square miles in size.

"We want to understand the extent to which soil moisture, through evaporation and transpiration by plants, influences the amount and location of precipitation," Gasiewski said. "The timing of the experiment will allow us to observe soil moisture patterns both before and after the annual winter wheat harvest so that the variation in the amount of vegetation can be factored into the results."

The soil moisture maps also will provide validation data for the NASA Aqua satellite, which will pass over the Cloud and Land Surface Interaction Campaign survey area three times during the mission.

Eric McIntyre, a CU-Boulder senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering, wrote the software that will control the scanner in the campaign. McIntyre will be on board the P-3 during its flights over Oklahoma along with Gasiewski and Marian Klein of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES.

Nine aircraft, ranging from a helicopter to the high-altitude ER-2, numerous laboratories and more than 100 scientists and operations support personnel are involved in the DOE campaign. CU-Boulder is the only institution that has the capability to map soil moisture content, providing crucial data for the study.

CIRES is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.