Watching the world burn

Why would a researcher from TU Delft want to spend a month living on a remote volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? Because it’s one of the best spots on the planet to study the impact of forest fires on climate change and cloud formation.

Dr. Martin de Graaf, who also works for the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), arrived on the shores of Ascension Island earlier this month to join an international group of scientists involved with CLARIFY-2016. The project, which stands for ‘CLoud-Aerosol-Radiation Interactions and Forcing: Year 2016,’ is using satellites and sophisticated ground and aircraft measurement instruments to create a map of the properties within cloud droplets and smoke. One of these tools is called a ground-based polarising UV-lidar and it shoots beams of laser light into the atmosphere in order to measure the size of these droplets. According to Dr. De Graaf, this has never been done before.

However, the success of CLARIFY-2016 largely depends on atmospheric and weather conditions. The island is an ideal location for the project, especially this time of year, because a tremendous amount of smoke from natural vegetation fires and other sources originating in Southern Africa typically drifts over it.

“If this happens we can study cloud forming and cloud dynamics under the influence of smoke, which changes them both,” Dr. De Graaf explained. “It creates cloud condensation nuclei that are important in the formation of clouds and precipitation. Also, absorbing aerosols heat the atmospheric column at the height of the aerosol layer and influence the thermodynamic stability of both it and the formation and lifetime of clouds.”

The project should provide the team with a better understanding of the interactions that take place between clouds, radiation and particles and how they might contribute to climate change. Current climate models contain inaccuracies that they hope to clear up.

“Clouds are very important in the energy balance of the Earth,” Dr. De Graaf said. “When we want to understand global warming, or more generally the Earth’s energy balance, we need to understand the formation and life processes of clouds.”

Dr. De Graaf is joined by Jessica Brown, a master’s student from Wageningen University who reported on their preparations for the trek and their first few days on the island via TU Delft’s Instagram page. You can check out her photos by clicking here.

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