Storm Peak is a lab and a classroom.
Over forty years ago what would become the premier, high-elevation atmospheric science laboratory in the Western United States opened at Steamboat Springs Ski Resort in Colorado. Storm Peak, as the facility is called, has been “the perfect place, to have your head in the clouds,” says director Gannet Hallar, professor of atmospheric sciences at the U. The laboratory sits in the clouds about 40 percent of the time in the winter. “That allows us to sample clouds and the particles that make clouds at the same time. And from that, the lab has produced about 150 peer-reviewed publications.”
Named after the peak which stands at 10,500 feet above sea level, the 3,500-square-foot lab is not only the perfect place for established researchers but for budding scientists who are studying what changes a cloud, what makes it snow versus what makes it not snow and what makes more versus less ice in the atmosphere, among other questions.
This year twelve students in the new Science Research Initiative at the College of Science will make the five-hour road trip to Steamboat Springs, then take the chairlift to Storm Peak. Funded by the National Science Foundation and operated under a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, the storied lab has an incredible record of long—term atmospheric measurements, “critical,” according to Hallar, to the success of the site and for the broader understanding we need to improve climate predictions.
Hallar has the advantage of operating out of two locations: Storm Peak where regional air quality through long data records is determined over decades of change, as well as the top floor and roof of the Browning Building at the U’s main Salt Lake campus where she studies urban air quality. One week students and faculty collaborators can be seen using a multifilter showdowband radiometer overlooking the Salt Lake Valley and then the next week literally in the clouds witnessing science in the making. Students “can learn concepts in the classroom and then watch that data appear physically in front of their eyes,” says Hallar. “They can see the concept of photochemistry as it appears, how … the concentration of gases change as the sun comes up.”
As pristine as the air is at Storm Peak, just west of the Continental Divide in the northwest corner of the state, it is also typical of rural areas in the U.S. where coal plant emissions can impact atmospheric composition. Two of those plants are upwind of the facility which makes the measurements Hallar and her team collect even more relevant to other rural locations.
“What’s amazing about this place is that we have shown over the fifteen plus years that we've run undergraduate programs that it's a place of inspiration.” Students learn how important changes in gases are in terms of public health and climate. “I think it's important for our students to come and see us measuring and calibrating carefully. They can see the care and precision taken to measure greenhouse gases.”
Not all greenhouse gases are human-derived. Wildfires in the West have become a new variable in measuring atmospheric composition, involving forest ecologists like William Anderegg, director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy at the U. And there are other measurements being done at Storm Peak that might prove surprising. “We've done studies on how tree emissions change when beetle infestation happens,” says Hallar, which impacts air quality as well.
Storm Peak is just one node in the Global Atmospheric Watch Network, a consortium of labs and observation sites that together address atmospheric composition on all scales, from global and regional to local and urban. Hallar and her team work closely with sites on Mt. Washington and Whiteface, in New Hampshire and New York, respectively, as well Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, among others. Recently, the team submitted a proposal to collaborate with Pico del Este, a field site in Puerto Rico.
It will require collaboration on a global scale to address climate change, and aerosol particle research, says Hallar, “is most definitely the critical measurement that [atmospheric scientists] need to make.” In addition to measuring methane–a critical player because of its warming potential–at Storm Peak, “we can see what we call the Keeling Curve. We can see how carbon dioxide increases every year, but has a seasonal cycle, that is associated with how trees and plants uptake carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, students are preparing for their field trip to Storm Peak in March where the ski resort will not only provide transportation up to the facility via lift but ski passes. A staging facility in west Steamboat Springs houses equipment that includes a snow cat, snowmobiles and other equipment. Up top, bunks are limited to nine, so there is a lot of travel up and down the slopes. But it’s worth it for students to get their collective head in the clouds to work with instrumentation critical to measuring clean air and discovering ramifications more broadly in terms of global warming.
by David Pace, photos by Maria Garcia, Ian McCubbin, and Gannet Hallar.