NASA's new mission studies how intense thunderstorms may influence climate change
The thunderstorms could impact the earth's protective ozone layer, too.
NASA recently began new research to investigate how extreme summer weather may be affecting the upper layers of earth's atmosphere.
Kenneth Bowman, Ph.D., the principal investigator for the Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTSS) research project, spoke to reporters about the project during a press briefing on Tuesday. He said their goal is to understand how intense summer thunderstorms over the U.S. affect the stratosphere -- the second layer of earth’s atmosphere as you move toward space -- especially as climate change causes severe thunderstorms to occur more often.
“Most thunderstorms occur in the lower layer of the atmosphere, which we call the troposphere. But when we get particularly intense thunderstorms, the updrafts -- the rising air in the storm -- can actually overshoot into the layer above, which is the stratosphere,” Bowman said.
He said that when this happens, the air in the troposphere can rise up to the stratosphere in as little as 20 to 30 minutes. Those updrafts can transport pollutants and water that might not normally reach this level of the atmosphere in such a short amount of time.
The stratosphere is usually dry, according to the project’s website, and the water and pollutants may "have a significant impact on radiative and chemical processes" in the atmospheric layer.
David Wilmouth, Ph.D., a scientist at Harvard University who is working on the project, said the updrafts could potentially “change the chemical composition of the stratosphere, a process that would not otherwise happen.” Their work will determine if that’s the case.
Bowman explained that the stratosphere is important because it contains the Earth’s ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation that comes from the sun. About 90% of the world’s ozone layer exists within the stratosphere, according to Wilmouth.
Wilmouth said the ozone layer is “critical” for protecting life on earth. If its protective shield was to weaken, humans would be more susceptible to skin cancer, cataracts disease and an impaired immune system, according to NASA.
Dan Cziczo, Ph.D., a professor and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University, said during the briefing that their goal is specifically to understand the composition and size of the particles that make their way up to the stratosphere, and how they might influence the earth’s climate. Cziczo said the research would also help scientists understand the process of cloud formation and subsequent precipitation.
Understanding the relationship between climate change and particulate matter in the air is critical because, ultimately, each of them might exacerbate the impact of the other on humans’ health and way of life.
"What we don't so often think about is that the atmosphere also contains a lot of particulate matter, and this was reinforced for us all over the last few weeks, when we learned about the wildfires burning in the Pacific Northwest, both in the U.S and Canada,” Cziczo said. “That had a huge impact, especially on things like air quality and human health. … Particulate matter, particularly in high concentrations, can cause a lot of premature deaths around the world.”
For the project, NASA is working with several universities across the country, as well as the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The mission consists of three eight-week-long deployments over the course of the 2021 and 2022 summer seasons. The DCOTSS will be using NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft for the mission.
DCOTSS will be operated out of Salina, Kansas, a site chosen by the researchers due to its central location within the U.S. It’s also a region of the country that’s particularly prone to severe and intense thunderstorms during the summer.
The ER-2 aircraft is equipped with fully robotic, pre-programmed instruments that can measure the gases and particles that come out of the overshooting tops of the thunderstorms, as well as meteorological information, such as water vapor, Wilmouth said.
The aircraft can only transport its pilot, who must wear a pressurized suit to withstand the high altitudes, which can go as high as 70,000 feet -- about twice the altitude of typical commercial airlines, according to the project’s website.
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