Major atmospheric study to be conducted in valley

Weather balloons and radars

[ By Mark Reaman ]

The Upper East River Valley will soon be the focus of a major two-year atmospheric research project being run by the U.S. Department of Energy in coordination with the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). The goal is to dig deep into the hydrology of the area and collect data that will help predict future threats to water resources throughout the American West. The research project will begin setting up this summer and start collecting information in the fall of 2021.

A mobile atmospheric observatory called SAIL (Surface Atmosphere Integrated Laboratory) will bring dozens of instruments to the area and involve scientists from a range of other government, research and academic institutions around the country.

“RMBL is very excited to have cutting edge atmospherics research coming to the Gunnison Basin. This project will improve our understanding of water, one of our most critical resources, and snow and weather forecasting,” explained RMBL executive director Ian Billick.

The observatory has been deployed around the world and before coming to Crested Butte it was located on a ship collecting data in the Arctic Ocean. The instruments are quiet and pose no danger to people. The radars transmit very low frequency radio waves that are not considered dangerous or hazardous.

The observatory consists of several portable shipping containers that house instruments, communications, power and data systems. Individual instruments are also dispersed around the containers and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from small probes and cameras to larger towers and radars. Most of the instruments will be located along the edge of the Gothic townsite in the East River Valley. There may also be a few instruments on Mt. Crested Butte just above the Red Lady and Teocalli lift area, pending evaluation by the ski resort and US Forest Service.

“Approximately three dozen instruments will be deployed with the observatory. They will measure precipitation, clouds, aerosols, winds, radiative energy, temperature and humidity from the ground surface to thousands of feet into the atmosphere,” explained Erik Hulm, RMBL’s senior project manager. “Some of the instruments will measure microscopic particles and others will measure areas that span tens of miles.”

RMBL intimately involved with project
The biological laboratory will be hosting the project. There will be technicians living year-round in Gothic to monitor the equipment. Weather balloons will be released daily. RMBL will also assist with permitting, hosting some of the sensors on RMBL property, and providing logistical support for the project. The project has been reviewed by RMBL’s Research Committee, which evaluates the scientific value of the project, assesses environmental impacts of projects, and identifies potential conflicts with ongoing research.
“RMBL accelerates scientific discovery by creating synergies between projects,” said Billick. “Adding atmospherics research to one of the largest collections of long-term field studies, and recent investments by the Department of Energy in water research, will create unique scientific opportunities for understanding the environmental processes that support food security, water quality and quantity and human health.”

As for coordinating the project from Gothic in the winter, Billick said people should not see any major increase in use. “We will be coordinating winter snowmobile trips to support the project with grooming of the Gothic track as much as possible, to minimize any increase in motorized traffic,” he said. “RMBL does not anticipate using the weekly snowmobile trips for which it is approved and we are not requesting additional motorized access. If RMBL does need to bring in a snowmobile, we will do it after mid-day to minimize conflicts with non-motorized recreation.”

Weather balloons will be released regularly to provide direct measurements of the temperature and wind speed and direction within the atmosphere. Depending on weather conditions the balloons will travel from a few miles to many tens of miles from the site before safely returning to the ground. The balloons are made of biodegradable materials and is attached to a small radiosonde which records atmospheric data. All the material is safe to handle and a sticker on the radiosonde provides instructions on what to do and where to find additional information if a balloon is found.

Synergies with other research
Bringing the SAIL project to the valley will attract other research projects to the area. According to Hulm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will deploy a variety of instruments at several sites near and down valley from the SAIL installation. In addition, researchers from a range of academic institutions are planning small-scale deployments within the same timeframe.

The SAIL project is expected to complement ongoing research in the area led by Berkeley Lab’s Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (SFA) project. The Watershed Function SFA project was established in 2016 and is focused on understanding how water flows through mountainous regions in response to changing climate, land use and extreme weather events. Billick said the SAIL project would collect valuable information on how water is delivered to the watershed in the form of rain and snow.

“This provides a unique opportunity for atmospheric scientists to collaborate with geologists, hydrologists and other scientists working within the same watershed to develop an integrated view of how precipitation moves from the atmosphere through the bedrock and into our mountain drainages,” he said. “Mountains act as nature’s water towers, providing freshwater for many of the worlds communities and natural systems. This research will generate new insights and approaches to understanding the timing and availability of water resources in the East River drainage. It will also be used to constrain climate prediction models in similar environments around the world to better predict the impacts of drought and climate change which threaten this valuable resource.“

Better weather forecasts possible
In the short-term, having the instruments in the valley can help with local forecasts. Some of the instruments such as the X-Band radar and weather balloons provide direct measurements of temperature, precipitation, wind speed and wind direction that can be used to improve local forecasting. This could benefit the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, Crested Butte Mountain Resort and anyone else interested in how the weather may impact their activities in the valley. A link to this data will be provided this fall when the instruments are up and running.

During mid to late summer of 2021, RMBL expects to be giving tours of the SAIL observatory. These will be based out of the RMBL Visitor’s Center.

The observatory will be in the valley for two years. Installation will begin during the summer of 2021 and the instruments will record data from the fall of 2021 through the summer of 2023. When the $5 million project is finished, all the instruments will be removed, and the sites restored to their native state.

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