NASA plane flies 13 miles over Kansas to study thunderstorms

NASA pilots are flying 13 miles over Kansas this summer to determine if intense summer thunderstorms are contributing to climate change.

The Research project Dynamics and chemistry of the summer stratosphere – made up of about 50 scientists from eight universities and four NASA laboratories across the country – is interested in the effect on the Earth’s stratosphere of powerful thunderstorms known as overflow storms.

“Now most storms, even the strongest, occur and live out their lives in the lowest part of the atmosphere, called the troposphere,” said Kenneth Bowman, principal investigator and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M. University. “The strongest storms, however, are so intense that their updrafts can extend upwards into the stratosphere.”

Bowman said Salina is the optimal location for this project because it “puts most overflow storms in North America within aircraft range.”

Outsized storms can transport large amounts of water and pollutants from the lower atmosphere into the stratosphere, which Bowman says can potentially affect both the climate and the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. Therefore, it can contribute to climate change.

The team has been in Salina since late May, Bowman said, and launches flights every two to three days. Flights last seven to eight hours and reach altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, “about twice as high as an airliner typically flies,” says Bowman. The pilot must wear a full space suit and helmet to stay in a pressurized environment due to their height.

The plane is equipped with a set of scientific instruments that measure material coming out of thunderstorm tops as well as wind, turbulence, particle number density, particle size distribution and more.

Bowman said his team had so far found high levels of water vapor in the stratosphere, which is typically a dry part of the atmosphere.

“What we’re seeing is just the massive amounts of water in particular that these storms are putting into the stratosphere,” Bowman told The Eagle. “Putting water into the stratosphere is one of the things that adds to the greenhouse effect and helps warm the surface.

“As the climate changes, which will continue to happen, these storms can become more violent, they can carry more water into the stratosphere. [and] they can carry it higher, which can contribute to increased global warming.

This is the second year that DCOTSS has launched flights to Salina as part of the project. The team also deployed flights in July and August 2021, Bowman said. The team will stay in Salina for about three more weeks, after which they will fly back home to Palmdale, California.

After the flights, the team will move on to analyzing and publishing their data, NASA says.

“We’re still mostly in the data collection phase of the project,” Bowman said. “Of course people are analyzing last year’s results and starting to look at this year’s data. We really expect most of the scientific publications and papers to come out in the next few years. »

Nicole Klevanskaya is an intern reporter at the Wichita Eagle. She is currently studying journalism and Russian at the University of Kansas and was the 2019 Kansas Scholastic Press Association Student Journalist of the Year and National Finalist. Originally from Pittsburg, Kansas, she covered student politics for KU’s student newspaper, the University Daily Kansan. Her article on the Kansas Foster Care System that she wrote for her high school newspaper, the Booster Redux, was named a 2019 “Feature Story of the Year” by the National Scholastic Press Association. In her spare time, Nicole enjoys playing the piano, hiking and spending time with her family.