After four years of study, a Texas Tech scientist shows profound impact storms can have.
Following almost five years of research, the impact of weather patterns and storms on the spatial and temporal variability in greenhouse gases and ongoing climate change is now better understood.
Sandip Pal, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences in Texas Tech University's Department of Geosciences, was among the group of researchers who began exploring this relationship in 2018. The result is a series of three recently published high-impact journal articles explaining the profound and varied influence storms have.
“We looked at different storms in four seasons and what they do as far as the carbon dioxide or methane in the atmosphere,” Pal said. “Some of this we already knew, but what we were missing was what was happening before, during and after the storms pass different locations and at different layers of the atmosphere vertically and horizontally.”
This required sophisticated airborne instruments that could move quicker than the fronts and provide more nuanced and thorough readings relative to their impact on greenhouse gases. The research was funded through a grant from NASA. Pal was part of the Atmospheric Carbon Transport – America science team tasked with exploring the issue.
“We wanted to be able to see the bull's-eye view,” he said. “We wanted a better overall picture of the entire storm, a wider footprint and its impact on greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.”
Greenhouse gases play an important role in regulating the planet's temperature by absorbing and emitting infrared radiation. These gases act like the “glass walls of a greenhouse, which is how they come by their name.
However, increasing carbon dioxide levels have had an adverse effect, resulting in Earth's atmosphere becoming steadily warmer. In turn, this has given rise to numerous projections of various scenarios, all of which contain a degree of uncertainty.
“The prime objective is to reduce that uncertainty through this process, and one of the prime things that has not been looked at is what happens during these storms, which drive the global and regional scale transport of greenhouse gases,” he said. “What we did not know before is how the storm actually redistributes particular greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
To unlock this information, Pal and a team of 15 researchers started with a question: Was it possible to observe and investigate the impact of storms on the variability in atmospheric greenhouse gases near the ground, in the sky and from space?
Answering yes, they analyzed airborne, ground-based tower and satellite-borne measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations during the passage of cold fronts.
“With airborne measurements, you can fly and see the broad region of the storm as opposed to tower measurements, where you have to wait for the storm to reach you,” Pal said. “In flight with accurate instruments, you can go to the other side of a storm in a short amount of time and get a picture of both sides. We looked at the trajectory of different storms to see how they changed the concentration of carbon dioxide in different layers of the atmosphere.”
The findings have been published in a series of three papers appearing in the Journal of Geophysical Research. The first, for which Pal is the lead author, can be found here; the second, led by Texas Tech graduate student Samantha Walley, here; and the third, on which Pal is a contributing author, here.
What's important about this work is it provides a more complete picture of the impact of storms on greenhouse gas distributions beyond what is experienced on the ground.
“We combine ground measurements with the airborne measurements for the same storm system,” Pal said. “As the storm moves, you get ground measurements, air measurements and measurements within the storm itself – the full picture.”
Likewise, the research is important because it will help inform the full picture of climate change and global warming.
“We need to constrain the uncertainty around projections about climate scenarios,” Pal said. “It will improve our understanding of the estimation of greenhouse gas emission scenarios, and that is going to be very important for our future climate.
“We need to squeeze out the uncertainty and fill the gaps. These predictions are coming from numerical models, so-called climate models, and we can improve those models through the use of observation that will allow us to make better predictions.”