Right now over 200 instruments are ticking around the clock across vast stretches of wheat fields and pastureland inside Oklahoma and Kansas. Their function — to take detailed measurements of our atmosphere — keeps them busy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And without them, scientists around the world would lack critical data they need to truly understand the atmosphere.
These instruments make up the Southern Great Plains (SGP) atmospheric observatory, the world’s largest and most extensive climate research facility. This year the site celebrates 25 years of operations, helping scientists gain vital insights into the Earth’s cloud, aerosol and atmospheric processes.
“SGP is the best, most advanced atmospheric research site in the world in terms of the variety of its atmospheric measurements, the measurement quality, staff expertise and the length of the data record.” – David Turner, NOAA meteorologist
The site, managed by Environmental Science Division researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, is the first and largest one established by the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility. As a DOE Office of Science User Facility, ARM offers scientific data and support to advance scientific inquiry across a wide variety of fields.
The site’s more than 200 instruments measure the atmosphere in countless ways, including solar radiation, rain or snowfall, cloud properties, winds, pollution, humidity and temperature. Researchers glean these data to enhance climate and weather forecast models as well as studies in agriculture, cloud development, land –atmosphere interactions and severe storm processes.
“Individual researchers would not have the resources to measure the number of variables needed in analysis of complex atmospheric processes,” said Nicki Hickmon, associate director of operations for ARM.
“But for many researchers, measuring all these variables is critical to understanding what is going on. So providing those measurements really helps to feed the science.”
Measurements collected are freely accessible through the ARM’s Data Discovery portal.
The Southern Great Plains’ instruments extend from the site’s core facility to 25 other locations surrounding it. This design enables researchers to track how clouds, rainfall and other atmospheric phenomena move and evolve across wider areas.
Along with access to instrumental data, scientists can visit the site to conduct field campaigns – periods of time set aside to capture specific data at a set location. During these campaigns, researchers can bring in their own instruments or augment them with SGP’s observations.
“We’ve hosted people from all over the world and can run many campaigns at any given time, which is unique,” said Mike Ritsche, Argonne’s SGP site manager.
“These capabilities are made possible through our extensive support structures, including a shipping and receiving warehouse, an electronics repair shop and a dedicated team of experts available to help with logistics.”
Over the past 25 years, the site has hosted nearly 400 field campaigns. Meteorologist David Turner, a long-time user at the site and associate of ARM, is impressed.
“SGP is the best, most advanced atmospheric research site in the world in terms of the variety of its atmospheric measurements, the measurement quality, staff expertise and the length of the data record,” Turner said.
Turner, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the value of ARM site observations are fundamental to scientific inquiry.
“ARM allows us to evaluate whether our current understandings of our world are correct. If not, then these observations can help us make improvements.”