Dr Anjuli S. Bamzai, Division Director for Atmospheric and Geospace articulates why the research community is at the cusp of a new era of scientific discovery in weather and climate, enabled by innovative cutting-edge technologies
As Division Director of the Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division (AGS) within the Directorate for Geosciences at the U.S. National Science Foundation, I have the privilege of working to support leading-edge scientific research in academic institutions as well as large-scale facilities, such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR); see Figure 1.
Advances in technology
Standing on the shoulders of the giants before them, atmospheric and geospace science researchers today have an unprecedented opportunity to extend understanding of the planet’s past, present and future state. We are at the cusp of a new era of scientific discovery enabled by technological advances in observations, modelling and simulation. Just as the invention of the telegraph played a significant role in the growth of meteorology two centuries ago, current computing capability and storage capacity, as well as new satellite observations, are enabling new advances. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) techniques, robotics and scientific visualisation are also veritably transforming the way science is undertaken in the field; researchers now deploy unmanned aircraft systems to obtain in-situ measurements, such as in the recent observational campaign to study how tornadoes form.
All this would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.
AGS projects are unique in that they address the scientific basis of sources of fundamental predictability of the atmosphere, from local weather to longer-term global climate. New knowledge and insights on atmospheric processes and phenomena and the Sun-Earth system can improve dynamic models in the suite of forecasting tools. Timely and accurate forecasts save lives and prevent damage to critical infrastructure.
AGS also supports research on the natural evolution of Earth’s climate system on timescales longer than the instrumental record. Reconstructions of past climates from geological and biological records provide a context for present climate variability and future climate trends.
The U.S. investment in fundamental research, technology development and education enable discoveries that help ensure a prosperous and sustainable future. And, because the atmosphere is not circumscribed by national boundaries, we take a global and holistic perspective to understand it. Several AGS-sponsored projects leverage resources across boundaries through international cooperation on issues such as open data access of observations, modelling and simulation. Through interagency and international collaboration, enhanced understanding has been achieved, not only of the atmosphere but also it’s coupling with the biosphere, cryosphere, oceans and sea-ice.
Some recent, exciting AGS-funded efforts are listed below.
- AGS has played a pioneering role in the development of instrumentation to provide measurements for scientific research in the atmosphere; an example is the development of CubeSats, a miniaturised satellite for space research that is made up of multiples of 10 cm × 10 cm × 11.35 cm cubic units. CubeSats have a mass no more than 1.33 kilogrammes per unit and often use commercial off-the-shelf components for their electronics and structure. An added goal of this activity is enhanced university participation and the spurring of innovation and technology development.
- The AGS-supported SOARS – Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science – program was developed to broaden participation in the geosciences by increasing the number of underrepresented minorities, female and first-generation college students who succeed in graduate studies in atmospheric and related sciences. The foundation of SOARS is a 10-week summer research internship, which includes an ongoing writing workshop. A strong, formal mentoring program and a vibrant learning community support all participants. In August 2019, SOARS was honoured with a STEM Mentoring + Making Award by US 2020, for Diversity and Inclusion Program of the Year. See the article in the October 2019 issue of Physics Today for further details on SOARS.
- The AGS-funded Western Wildfire Experiment for Cloud Chemistry, Aerosol Absorption and Nitrogen (WE-CAN) field campaign aimed to systematically characterise the emissions and first 24 hours of smoke plume evolution from western U.S. wildfires. It focused on three science questions related to better- quantifying processes associated with fixed nitrogen, absorbing aerosols, and cloud activation and chemistry in wildfire plumes. WE-CAN deployed a large suite of measurement instruments on the NSF/NCAR C-130 research aircraft; it also involved a ground-based mobile component. Several graduate students participated in the field campaign (Figure 2).
- The AGS-funded field campaign, Remote Sensing of Electrification, Lightning and mesoscale/microscale Processes with Adaptive Ground Observations (RELAMPAGO) has the goal to elucidate the tight connections between the land surface, complex terrain, convective development and the production of severe weather. The project location was West Central Argentina, a region of severe convection and lightning.
While a healthy financial investment is certainly important for the scientific enterprise, nothing is more important than having the necessary intellectual capital. It is imperative we draw from a wide talent pool, inspiring the best and brightest to be scientific leaders while enhancing diversity and broadening participation. In this regard, the first NSF Director, Dr Alan Waterman, said this: One thing is certain. Whatever major objectives or high adventures mankind undertakes, the highest degree of originality and the deepest insights will come from individual minds. Accordingly, not only the progress of science but its meaning and future promise are best fulfilled by ensuring the right and the opportunity for individuals to pursue research of their own choosing.
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