Can tiny particles in the atmosphere create more powerful thunderstorms? UH is trying to find out.


The University of Houston is participating in a year-long weather experiment that will examine whether soot, dust, smoke and other tiny airborne particles can cause stronger, rainier thunderstorms.

This is a subject of debate among researchers, who do not fully understand how the size, quantity and composition of aerosols can affect storms. There may even be a sweet spot where a number of airborne particles would energize a storm, but adding more would reverse that trend.

“We don’t know the answers to these questions,” Michael Jensen, senior research scientist and meteorologist at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, told a virtual press conference. “This is exactly why we have to go out and take these detailed measurements of what’s going on inside the clouds.”

The experiment begins October 1 and will use more than four dozen instruments – and more than 1,000 weather balloons – provided by the US Department of Energy. The researchers hope to settle the aerosol debate and ultimately improve the computer models used for weather forecasts, air quality conditions and climate predictions.

The experiment could even produce data to predict how much rain a storm could produce, which could be particularly useful in cities like Houston, prone to flash floods.

The study is known as TRACER, which stands for “TRacking Aerosol Convection interactions Experiment”. UH is working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory to collect data on aerosols and atmospheric characteristics for a full year. The user installation for measuring atmospheric radiation at the Ministry of Energy supplies the instruments.

Most of these instruments are placed at La Porte Municipal Airport, although some are also at Pearland, Guy (a less populated community in Fort Bend County) and Smith Point on the east side of Galveston Bay. These instruments will measure variables such as humidity, rain, cloud properties and the size, number and chemical composition of aerosols.

Placing the instruments in a variety of environments should allow researchers to measure thunderstorms interacting with natural aerosols, such as sea salt, and industrial / urban aerosols such as soot from combustion processes in power plants and buildings. refineries. The equipment could even detect smoke from the California and Colorado wildfires that travel to the Houston area.

“We don’t just want to measure the signal from urban or industrial aerosols and what those impacts would be on clouds and cloud development,” said Chongai Kuang, co-investigator of the experiment and atmospheric scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. “We are also very interested in the signal of aerosols coming from more natural areas, rural or agricultural.

During the summer storm season in Houston, the experiment will undergo an “intensive study period” with additional partners and equipment from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other agencies. .

“Weather is really the lifeblood of climate,” Jensen said. “The climate is the average of the weather conditions that we see in a given location. So ultimately both weather and climate are affected by the same atmospheric physics, the same processes that take place in the atmosphere. And our real goal is to understand these processes that determine weather and, therefore, climate. “

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