A team of researchers from Alabama and other states will train an array of instruments skyward in Arizona this summer for an unprecedented study of the genesis of monsoon storms.
About 20 scientists will spend July and August collecting data from 10 surface weather stations at the base of the mountains, a tower atop Mount Bigelow, sounding balloons and a specially equipped airplane.
In the first scientific study to pinpoint the first stages of monsoon storm formation, the team will analyze the monsoon using digital cameras, Global Positioning System-based vertical sounding systems, surface heat and moisture sensors and specifically designed instrument packages aboard balloons.
The team includes researchers from the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, the University of Wyoming, the University of Miami, the University of Alabama-Huntsville and the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research.
The goal is to develop forecast models that more accurately reflect the development of storms, which in turn will improve short-term predictions of the chaotic storms, said Arizona State University meteorologist Joe Zehnder.
Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Cumulus, Photogrammetric In-Situ and Doppler Observations project culminates with the field study this summer after three years of preliminary research.
Thunderstorm studies of this type aren’t new, but the new technology and techniques will give the team an unprecedented level of data at the earliest development of the storms, Zehnder said.
The team’s observations will start before the start of the cloud formation and as the storm clouds rise, they build one after another.
The site of the study is crucial to the quality of the data, with accurate observations only possible in areas where storms first develop, which reliably happens over mountain peaks of the sky island ranges of the desert Southwest, Zehnder said.
The digital cameras will be utilized in stereoscopic pairs, enabling the team to build three-dimensional images of the monsoon storm by identifying features common to both images and triangulating. Individual clouds can be observed from multiple angles, adding to the reliability of the models, Zehnder said.
The data will produce time-lapse movies of the cloud formation, supplemented by computer animations and data showing cloud structure and dynamics. Zehnder said the team hopes the results will improve short-term forecasting abilities as well as longer term climate modeling.
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