Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Scientists fly through the clouds to piece together climate puzzle

NASA: As scientists try to better understand and put together the puzzle of Earth's climate, the role of clouds remains one of the most important missing pieces. Researchers from four NASA centers, other U.S. agencies and several colleges and universities are set to participate in the Mid-latitude Airborne Cirrus Properties Experiment (MACPEX), an airborne field campaign based at Ellington Field, Texas, that aims to answer some major questions about clouds. The campaign is scheduled to begin March 14, with science flights onboard the NASA WB-57 from March 28 to April 29.

"Initially it started as a question about the real characteristics of ice clouds in the lowest portion of the atmosphere, the upper troposphere. Past observations had shown ice particles are a lot smaller and lot more numerous than people thought they were," said Ken Jucks, Upper Atmosphere Program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "More recent measurements done at the tropics have shown that may not actually be true, but no measurements have been made at the mid-latitudes."

The campaign will study the composition of cirrus clouds -- high, wispy clouds made of ice -- and their relationship to Earth's "energy budget," the combination of incoming and outgoing energy or heat.

"Recent advances in instrumentation greatly improve our ability to accurately measure the sizes and numbers of ice crystals in cirrus clouds," said MACPEX project scientist Eric Jensen of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. "This information is critically needed to evaluate and improve representations of cirrus in climate models. We anticipate that MACPEX will ultimately lead to improved accuracy of climate predictions."…

The WB-57 airplane can fly as high as 63,000 feet. Credit: NASA

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