Sandia National Laboratories station manager Mark Ivey indicates the path of a helium-filled weather balloon as it floats rapidly up from its cradle. The facility is part of DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) climate research program. (Photo: Neal Singer)

Mark Ivey—manager for Sandia of the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) climate research facility at Barrow—is waiting for the automated release of a weather balloon … [which] measures the Arctic atmosphere’s temperature, humidity, and wind speeds at a rapid succession of altitudes as it rises. The data gathering is part of an ongoing effort to depict the structure of the atmosphere and the formation and elevation of its clouds. Imprecisions in both these areas cause disputes about the accuracies of global climate models, which need the kind of hard data provided by this facility for the most accurate results. To this end, the launch facility inflates and releases two balloons every day, automatically, one at 9:31 a.m. and another at 9:31 p.m. The time- and location-stamped data—collected every 10 seconds as the balloon soars upward—is radioed to a receiving antenna at the test facility, and from there electronically to the ARM central Alaskan facility—an unpretentious one-story duplex a few miles away in Barrow … an outpost of science at the northernmost point of the North American continent.

Among the site’s findings to date has been that the Arctic’s very cold clouds fill with supercooled liquids rather than ice particles. This difference has a big impact on the amount of heat entering or leaving Earth’s surface, said Hans Verlinde, a meteorology professor at Penn State and site scientist for the Barrow ARM program. In the Arctic, where clouds help warm Earth’s surface instead of cooling it, they do this more effectively with liquid in the clouds instead of solids, an important clarification for climate models.

Mark continued, “because of the quality of the data and its ability to provide information about important topics in a trustworthy way, funding has actually increased.” Information like this is so desirable that the Office of Science has allocated additional funding during the next two years through its Biological Environmental Research (BER) arm to build new facilities and buy equipment for another ARM site. Also to be managed by Sandia, it will be constructed 166 miles away at Oliktok Point, a spit of land that borders directly on the Arctic Ocean.

The idea from the scientists comprising the Barrow ARM group is to install a ground station and stock it with Doppler and high spectral resolution lidars, radar, and radiometers, along with meteorological equipment and other sensors. More important, an abandoned Air Force hangar a hundred yards away would shelter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), probably to be owned by a university in collaboration with the Office of Science. These would be expected to fly through air space almost empty of civilian or military traffic from Oliktok Point toward the North Pole for additional atmospheric data collection. “Routine measurements of the Arctic atmosphere would be very valuable in understanding it,” Ivey said, “and the ground station would be helpful in understanding cloud processes. But UAVs and balloons are ways to get at atmospheric structure that currently are poorly represented in our models.”

Read the rest of the article at