San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

NASA Wraps Up Global Warming Experiment

Three U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) airplanes, which made Costa Rica’s JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport outside of San José home base for operations to provide better understanding of global climate change, flew home last week after finishing the experiment.

Three airplanes, the high-flying ER-2 and WB-57, and a NASA 817 DC-8 flying laboratory, flew over and into tropical thunderclouds to precisely measure the clouds’ composition.

The measurements will be plugged into computer models that describe the global climate, making them more precise.

Models are currently based on satellite imaging, which measures electromagnetic radiation, the visible light spectrum, plus invisible radiation such as infrared and ultraviolet light.

The models, though, do not reflect the exact composition of clouds.

The Tropical Composition, Cloud and Climate Coupling Campaign, as the Costa Rica experiment is called, will determine the cloud composition down to the molecular level.

When added to current models, the collected data will yield a dramatically more detailed understanding of climate dynamics, said program scientist Kenneth Jucks.

“We think we’ll get a clearer understanding of the microphysics of climate change in general,” Jucks said.

Approximately 100 Costa Rican scientists participated in the project, monitoring weather and releasing dozens of weather balloons.

U.S. and Costa Rican university researchers also participated in the mission.

Costa Rica’s NationalCenter for High Technology (CENAT) acted as NASA’s Costa Rica counterpart.

Scientists make the experiments at tropical latitudes because clouds in the northern hemisphere are hemmed it at lower elevations, while tropical clouds, fed by evaporation of vast quantities of water from hot tropical oceans, reach the upper atmosphere, or stratosphere, playing an important role in regulating the Earth’s temperature.

“We’re interested in flying into the region above where normal aircraft can fly and understanding what’s there,” said mission scientist Brian Toon.

“A lot of the Earth’s climate is influenced by that region of the atmosphere because water there is very important in controlling the greenhouse affect; the clouds are very important in controlling how much light is reflected into space and there’s a lot of chemicals that are transported into the stratosphere,” Toon said.

One of the airplanes, the ER-2, modeled after the old U-2 spy reconnaissance planes that flew over the Soviet Union during the Cold War, can fly above 70,000 feet and examine cloud formations from above. The 106-foot wingspan of the airplane requires that each wing have its own set of wheels that detach immediately upon takeoff.

Another, the WB-57 Canberra, is capable of flying over 60,000 feet.

The instrument laden DC-8, equipped with row after row of computers and gadgets attached to probes extruding from the plane, is equipped with oversized engines that allow it to fly safely into thunderstorms as high as 35,000 feet.

This was the eighth NASA mission to have been launched in Costa Rica since 2001, including a similar mission last year that collected data aiming to validate weather information gathered by NASA’s Earth-observing Aura satellite (TT, Feb. 3, 2006).

Some of the information gathered will provide immediate answers to various scientific questions, while the wealth of data gathered will keep scientists busy for years to come, Jucks said.

“We’ll be looking at some of this data for the next 10 years,” he said.


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