CSU atmospheric scientists to study the most intense thunderstorms on Earth

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RELAMPAGO CSU Team 2018. Photos courtesy CSU.

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — A team of Colorado State University atmospheric scientists are headed to South America for six weeks to study the biggest thunderstorms on Earth.

The campaign is called RELAMPAGO or Remote Sensing of Electrification, Lighting and Mesoscale/microscale Processes with Adaptive Ground Observations.  They start November 1.

Dr. Russ Schumacher.

The team includes my Valparaiso University classmate and now CSU professor and State Climatologist Dr. Russ Schumacher.

Dr. Jason Tomlinson.

Also assisting, but on a separate team called CACTI, is another one of my Valparaiso University classmates, Dr. Jason Tomlinson.  Jason is the director of engineering of the Department of Energy ARM Aerial Facility G-1 aircraft and the lead flight scientist on board.

This is a collaborate effort.  They are working with a total of 160 scientists including many from  other programs around the country. You can find a complete list here.

Their target location is about 30 miles west of Cordoba, Argentina. The tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere is Aconcagua (22,841’/6960m), located about 320 miles to the west in the Andes Mountains.

Previous studies have shown that some of the most intense thunderstorms on Earth develop in Argentina. The thunderstorms there grow to incredible heights and produce grapefruit-sized hail.

“Our scientific goals are ultimately to better understand the types of storms that produce heavy precipitation and the processes that lead to that,” said Schumacher. “We anticipate that we will observe things we have never observed before.”

The teams will study the environment contributing to the birth and growth of these thunderstorms. Mountain meteorology becomes important just like in Colorado.

The thunderstorms initially grow over the mountains as the air becomes unstable and then continue to mature. In Colorado, we’re used to thunderstorms reaching a particular intensity, then breaking loose from the terrain and moving east toward Denver and the Front Range. Thunderstorms over the Andes appear to sit for a longer amount of time and grow larger before moving off the terrain.

The teams want to better understand all the processes involved. They’ll use C-band and X-band radar to dissect each thunderstorm, looking at updraft height and precipitation intensity.  They’ll launch over 100 mobile radiosondes via weather balloons to understand the vertical stability of the atmosphere.  Continuous three-dimensional lightning instrumentation will allow them to examine the electrification.  An instrumented aircraft will observe conditions aloft in the very early stages of storm development.

“Our responsibility on the aircraft is to sample the pre-convective environment.  We are measuring aerosols, gases and thermodynamic properties of the atmosphere.  As the cumulus humilis/mediocris form, we will be flying in them to sample the cloud properties.  However, once the storms get too strong, we are heading home to hide in the hangar,” said Tomlinson. “The hail down there is insane!”

For complete details on this big project, please click here.

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