By Juan Miguel Pedraza
The climate of the Arctic is changing so fast that scientists haven’t caught up to what’s happening. Clearly, the thinking goes, it’s a sharp signal about the broader changes occurring across the globe. Now researchers, including a team at UND, are chasing down details that will help us all get a better handle on global warming, design improved water quality models, and, ultimately, deliver more accurate and timely weather and disaster forecasts.
The quest for those key answers is driven in part by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Energy and Water Cycle Study, a long-term research project that now includes Xiquan Dong and a team of scientists at the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences Department of Atmospheric Sciences. Dong, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, recently won a multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant to pursue accurate studies of cloud properties and their impact in weather and climate change.
“We’re using data derived from ground- and satellite-based remote sensing to get an understanding of the importance of cloud-radiation interactions and feedbacks to regional climate change,” said Dong. “We want to improve climate model simulations using both surface and satellite observations.”
Dong also has earned the support of NASA’s Cloud and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) program; its Modeling, Analysis and Prediction (MAP) program; and its INTEX-B program (which also involves another research initiative at UND based on NASA’s DC-8 flying lab platform).
In addition to NASA, Dong’s research is supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program and the National Science Foundation’s Atmospheric Sciences and Earth Sciences programs. Dong also has been awarded UND Faculty Seed Money.
This research involves several distinct phases, Dong says.
First, the team is gathering information about cloud-radiation properties using ground-based remote sensing. This data will highlight specific properties of clouds and how they change over time. This information then is integrated into complex computer climate models. The aim is to see how accurate cloud data can be shaped into cloud profiles that can tell us more about how weather happens, how long-term temperature changes affect local climate conditions, and how we can determine climate effects more accurately.
“We also analyze satellite imagery to study how clouds affect the amount of energy that reaches the Earth’s surface, and how aerosols, such as dust emitted by volcanoes, affect those clouds,” said Dong. “It’s a very complex process that takes teams like ours to bring together a range of expertise, from climatology, remote sensing, and digital image processing to computer science.”
Dong’s arctic cloud project is intensively mathematical.
CYCLE PREDICTION IS VITAL. WATER IS AT THE HEART OF BOTH THE CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE.
“We do a lot of data validation,” he notes, which means rigorously testing information such as that provided by satellite images of cloud radiation. Ultimately, all this analysis flows into climate model simulations with the goal of creating computer-based predictive tools.
Among the vital questions tied to this broadly based climate study, said Dong, is where is the water going.
“The main reason that our planet is habitable is water,” said Dong. “The water cycle is key to life.” According to NASA in its request for proposals for the NEWS (NASA Energy and Water Cycle Study) project, the water cycle operates on a continuum of time and space scales and exchanges large amounts of energy as water undergoes phase changes and is moved from one part of the Earth system to another. Of course, this exchange is a major driver of global circulation of air.
While the water cycle delivers the hydrologic consequences of climate changes, it is also necessarily and intimately entwined with the global energy cycle, according to NASA. In fact, NASA says, the most significant manifestation of climate change for humans and the environment is an intensification of the global water cycle, leading to increased global precipitation, faster evaporation, and a general exacerbation of extreme hydrologic regimes, floods, and droughts.
Thus, water is at the heart of both the causes and effects of climate change, said Dong. If we’re to rationally manage an understanding of global climate change and its effects, and adapt successfully to some of those effects, then water cycle prediction is vital.
“This, basically” said Dong, “is what good science is all about: making predictions that can be validated (or invalidated) by observation.”