NASA is Flying 13 Miles Above Kansas to Study Severe Thunderstorms, Effect On Climate

June 14, 2022

Jun. 13—NASA pilots are flying 13 miles above Kansas this summer to figure out if intense summertime thunderstorms contribute to climate change.

The Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere research project — consisting of about 50 scientists from eight universities and four NASA labs across the country — is interested in the effect on the Earth's stratosphere from powerful thunderstorms known as overshooting storms.

"Now most storms, even most strong storms, happen and live out their lives in the lowest part of the atmosphere, which is called the troposphere," said Kenneth Bowman, principal investigator and Texas A&M University atmospheric science professor. "The strongest storms however are so intense that their updrafts can extend upward into the stratosphere."

Bowman said Salina is the optimal location for this project because it "puts most of the overshooting storms in North America within range of the aircraft."

Overshooting storms can carry large amounts of water and pollutants from the lower atmosphere into the stratosphere, which Bowman said can potentially affect both climate and the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. As a result, this can contribute to climate change.

The team has been in Salina since late May, Bowman said, and launch flights every two to three days. The flights last from seven to eight hours and reach altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, "about twice as high as an airliner usually flies," Bowman says. The pilot has to wear a full space suit and helmet to stay in a pressurized environment because of how high they are.

The plane is outfitted with an array of scientific instruments that measure the material coming out of the thunderstorms' tops as well as wind, turbulence, particle number density, particle size distribution and more.

Bowman said his team has so far found elevated levels of water vapor in the stratosphere, which is typically a dry part of the atmosphere.

"What we're seeing is just the tremendous amounts of water in particular that these storms are putting into the stratosphere," Bowman told The Eagle. "Putting water into the stratosphere is one of the things that adds to the greenhouse effect and helps warm the surface up.

"As the climate changes, which it's going to continue to do, these storms may become more severe, they may transport more water into the stratosphere [and] they may transport it higher, which can contribute to increases in global warming."

This is the second year DCOTSS has been launching flights in Salina as part of the project. The team also deployed flights in July and August 2021, Bowman said. The team will stay in Salina for about three more weeks, after which it will take the plane back to its home in Palmdale, California.

Following the flights, the team will move into analyzing and publishing its data, NASA says.

"We're still mostly in the data-gathering phase of the project," Bowman said. "People of course are analyzing the results from last year and starting to look at the data from this year. We really expect most of the scientific publications and papers will be coming out in the next few years."


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