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Water Isotopes Leave Fingerprints for Climate Scientists

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Posted June 25, 2013

University of Colorado meteorologist David Noone and his team are working to understand how water moves around the planet. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project team observes and analyzes the stable isotope composition of water vapor and precipitation, primarily at the 300-meter (984-foot) Boulder Atmospheric Observatory tower.

From the sprawling dome of Mauna Loa--11,000 feet above Hawaii's coconut-fringed beaches--climate scientists David Noone and Joe Galewsky can track water vapor that has traveled as far as the equator and the pole. They're the first to try to measure vapor's chemical signature in real-time in order to understand the processes controlling the global water cycle. Credit: CIRES, University of Colorado at Boulder

From the sprawling dome of Mauna Loa–11,000 feet above Hawaii’s coconut-fringed beaches–climate scientists David Noone and Joe Galewsky can track water vapor that has traveled as far as the equator and the pole. They’re the first to try to measure vapor’s chemical signature in real-time in order to understand the processes controlling the global water cycle. Credit: CIRES, University of Colorado at Boulder

The measurements are made using an optical measurement technology which has only recently become available, and which allows continuous in situobservations to be made on a practical basis. The ratio of heavier to lighter isotopes in water vapor contains information including the source region for the water vapor that falls as rain, which can be used to determine the extent to which rainwater comes directly from the ocean or from evaporation and plant transpiration over land.

The HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observation (HIPPO) project has generated the first detailed mapping--both vertically and across latitudes--of the global distribution of greenhouse gases, black carbon and related chemical species in the atmosphere. Credit: Animations courtesy of R. Bradley Pierce, NOAA/NESDIS/STAR

The HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observation (HIPPO) project has generated the first detailed mapping–both vertically and across latitudes–of the global distribution of greenhouse gases, black carbon and related chemical species in the atmosphere. Credit: Animations courtesy of R. Bradley Pierce, NOAA/NESDIS/STAR

“David’s work shows that isotopic composition can tell us a great deal about the sources and pathways of the rainwater that’s so critical for us and our environment,” says Eric DeWeaver, a program director in the Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division of the Directorate for Geosciences.

“This is exciting research and it’s also a great example of participatory science, in which middle school students can make an important contribution to the research while at the same time learning about the hydrological cycle.”

Source: NSF

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