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Berkeley Lab Scientist Invents New Technique to Understand Cloud Behavior

Using two digital cameras situated about 1 kilometer apart facing Miami’s Biscayne Bay, scientists David Romps and Rusen Oktem are able to collect three-dimensional data on cloud behavior that would have been impossible to collect before.

The photos allowed Romps, a climate scientist who specializes in clouds, to measure how fast the clouds rise, which in turn can shed light on a wide range of areas, ranging from lightning rates to extreme precipitation to the ozone hole.

Perhaps most importantly, a better understanding of basic cloud behavior will allow scientists to improve global climate models.Animated gif showing 14 minutes of cloud movement. (See UC photo below)

Animated gif showing 14 minutes of cloud movement.

The photos measure how fast the clouds rise, which in turn can shed light on a wide range of areas, ranging from lightning rates to extreme precipitation to the ozone hole. Perhaps most importantly, a better understanding of basic cloud behavior will allow scientists to improve global climate models. Here is an animated gif showing 14 minutes of cloud movement. (UC photo)

Romps’ innovation was a technique that does not require a reference point, such as a mountain or other land-based feature that allows scientists to study clouds over the open ocean.

“Knowing their speeds is important for several reasons; the important one is that we lack a really basic understanding of what processes control these clouds, the levels they peter out at, and how buoyant they are,” he said.

“We have a lot of measurements of clouds over land, but far fewer over the ocean,” Romps said. “The behavior can be quite different. For example, looking at satellite data, you see continental areas light up with a lot of lightning and oceans less so.”

Rusen Oktem (left) and David Romps

Berkeley Lab researchers Rusen Oktem (left) and David Romps (UC Photo)

The technique was detailed in a paper published last year in the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, titled “Stereophotogrammetry of Oceanic Clouds.”

 

With images taken every 10 to 30 seconds, “we can really start to look at the full lifecycle of clouds,” said Romps, who has a joint appointment in UC Berkeley’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science. His technique also offers far higher spatial and temporal resolution than other technologies.

The Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program has funded a second set of cameras at its Southern Great Plains site in Oklahoma, the largest and most extensive climate research site in the world.

Across about 55,000 square miles, clusters of lidar, radar, and other sophisticated monitoring equipment gather massive amounts of data to study the effects of aerosols, precipitation, surface fluxes, and clouds on the global climate.

camera overlooking Miami's Biscayne Bay

One of the cameras looking over Miami’s Biscayne Bay.(UC Photo)

Using stereophotogrammetry, Romps has measured the speeds of shallow clouds rising through the atmosphere at 1 to 3 meters per second and of deeper clouds rising at speeds in excess of 10 meters per second.

 

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