ARCHIVED - NRC polar research takes flight

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May 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

An NRC research team is marking the International Polar Year (IPY) initiative with numerous Arctic research flights to help advance the exploration, monitoring and forecasting of Canadian polar weather and climate systems.

In partnership with several other Canadian and U.S. research organizations, the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR) is participating in projects designed to remotely measure snow and ice cover, improve forecasts of severe Arctic storms, and determine the contribution of tiny airborne particles, called aerosols, in climate processes.

"The people who do science best today deploy large specialized partnerships or groups," says Dave Marcotte, manager of airborne research at NRC-IAR. "We have expertise in research flight operations, complex research partnerships, Arctic operations, and in situ atmospheric research – that is, flying into weather systems and measuring the conditions around us. So when other organizations plan complex research projects that require our unique capabilities, it's natural for them to contact us."

The International Polar Year is the largest-ever scientific research program focused on the Arctic and Antarctic. Organized through the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, IPY actually covers two full annual cycles, from March 2007 to March 2009, in order to ensure full and equal coverage of both poles. The IPY initiative involves more than 200 research projects, with thousands of scientists from over 60 nations examining a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics.

IPY Cryo

Since 2007, NRC-IAR researchers have participated with Environment Canada and other partners in a project called "IPY Cryo." This project is part of Canada's contribution to the international "State and Fate of the Polar Cryosphere" project. As part of this initiative, Environment Canada and NRC are testing a new method for measuring "snow-water equivalent" in the "cryosphere," which refers to snow- and ice-covered territory. "The method is a remote sensing system that should be able to fly above snow and ice and determine how much water is stored there," says Marcotte.

He says the remote sensing system could ultimately be used both to forecast and monitor the impact of climate change, and, among other potential applications, to determine the flooding potential of river basins during heavy snowfall years.

Over the winter, NRC's Twin Otter aircraft flew several missions in northern Quebec -- around Sept-Îles, Kuujjuaq and eastern Hudson Bay -- collecting radiometric data on the cryosphere. In April, the Twin Otter conducted a similar data-gathering campaign over the Northwest Territories.

NRC Twin Otter crew outfitted for Arctic operations over water: Ramesh Srinivasan (left) and Anthony Brown.
NRC Twin Otter crew outfitted for Arctic operations over water: Ramesh Srinivasan (left) and Anthony Brown.

Storm Studies in the Arctic

Last November, NRC's Convair 580 aircraft and crew traveled to Nunavut to take part in the Storm Studies in the Arctic (STAR) research project. The STAR network brings together researchers from NRC-IAR, Environment Canada and five Canadian universities to gain a better understanding of Arctic storms. The overall objective is to study meteorological hazards and test a network of technologies to improve weather forecasts in lower Arctic regions, especially the eastern Arctic around Iqaluit.

Over a month-long period, the Convair 580 flew almost 20 research missions. "They would start every day with a weather briefing," says Marcotte. "They usually wouldn't fly if it was bright and sunny, but would launch missions on days when most people would rather stay at home. But they flew into major storms only when they could do so safely."

NRC's Convair 580 in flight, below cloud.
NRC's Convair 580 in flight, below cloud.

The aircraft was equipped with an array of cloud physics instrumentation to gather a range of data including information on the structure and evolution of storms, blizzards, blowing snow and precipitation. Using the new NRC Airborne W and X band (NAWX) radar system, "the only one of its kind in the world," notes Marcotte, NRC researchers imaged cloud droplets, determined whether clouds were full of ice or liquid, and measured cloud motion including the uplift and three-dimensional winds.

In addition to research flights, the STAR project team collected ground and satellite data in order to correlate weather information from ground, aircraft and satellite sources. "Part of our job was to fly validation missions for the satellites, which are being developed as new experimental systems," says Marcotte.

Dr. Mengistu Wolde monitors data during an April 1 flight for the ISDAC.
Dr. Mengistu Wolde monitors data during an April 1 flight for the ISDAC.

Indirect and Semi-Direct Aerosol Campaign

In April, the Convair 580 was deployed to Fairbanks, Alaska to participate in the Indirect and Semi-Direct Aerosol Campaign (ISDAC) – an international collaboration led by the U.S. Department of Energy. ISDAC partners include NRC, Environment Canada and U.S. universities.

"The purpose of ISDAC is to look at the role of aerosols and how they affect cloud reflectance properties during springtime conditions in the Arctic," explains Marcotte. "Clouds both reflect and absorb solar energy, but the balance of what they do as our climate changes is unclear. So this project aims to help understand the effect of aerosols on clouds, and ultimately the effect of clouds on a changing climate."

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