For a number of nights between 29 June and 23 July 2014, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Falcon
Clouds make gravity waves visible
research aircraft will be flying over the New Zealand Alps (Southern Alps) to investigate how these waves propagate from Earth's surface up to an altitude of around 100 kilometres using modern laser metrology and other instruments. The results will help to improve climate and weather prediction models. The international aircraft measurement campaign DEEPWAVE (Deep Propagating Gravity Wave Experiment) is being carried out by the DLR Institute of Atmospheric Physics in cooperation with partners in the USA and New Zealand.
In the past, scientists studied gravity waves either in the lower atmosphere, known as the troposphere, or in the higher altitudes of the overlying middle atmosphere. Until now, it had not been possible to measure the complete life cycle of the waves from their excitation at ground level to their dissipation at the edge of space at an altitude of around 100 kilometres. In New Zealand, the first international research campaign was launched, which is analysing atmospheric gravity waves continuously from the ground up to the middle atmosphere. For climate research, understanding gravity waves is an important element in gaining a better understanding of global circulation patterns and being able to provide more accurate predictions. Developments in laser metrology, the use of these instruments on research aircraft and international cooperation are the cornerstones of the research mission, which will now deliver a more comprehensive picture of gravity wave propagation in the atmosphere.
Gravity waves are formed when atmospheric circulation systems are disturbed. They manifest themselves as periodic temperature, pressure and wind fluctuations, which propagate up into the middle atmosphere, comprised of the stratosphere and mesosphere. They are found, for example, where strong winds meet high mountains. In New Zealand, this phenomenon occurs where the wind passes over the Southern Alps. Gravity waves have already been observed over the southern peninsula of New Zealand and the surrounding Southern Ocean. With its extensive north-south mountain range situated directly on the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is an ideal location to study the lifecycle of these waves.
The DEEPWAVE mission team is using two aircraft and a ground station to record gravity waves continuously into the middle atmosphere. The laser-based measuring technique LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is particularly useful for this. The DLR Falcon will be flying at an altitude of between 10 and 12 kilometres and will look down from there into the troposphere with its LIDAR – in the area where gravity waves are excited by the airflow over the mountains. With its upward-looking LIDAR, the NCAR Gulfstream flies at a similar height, to follow the course of the waves into the middle atmosphere. Using lasers, the researchers measure the wind and temperature fluctuations caused by the gravity waves as they propagate through the atmosphere. A mobile DLR LIDAR, which is housed in a container at NIWA's Lauder Atmospheric Research Station, also serves as an information source in addition to the aircraft measurements. With this system, the researchers are able to measure temperature fluctuations induced by gravity waves at altitudes of between 30 and 80 kilometres. At Lauder, they also use radiosondes to capture the waves at lower altitudes – from ground level up to 30 kilometres.
For the laser measurements to be performed without disruption, research flights only take place at night. For the crew, the numerous night flights are a challenge. In the dark, it is difficult to identify clouds and the related occurrence of turbulence or icing, especially in the vicinity of the mountains. The flights take off from Christchurch, where the DLR Falcon is stored in a hangar at an international airport. Prior to this, at the end of June, the research aircraft and crew flew for six days and in 11 stages from DLR Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich, over the Arabian Peninsula, India, Southeast Asia and Australia to the South Island of New Zealand. The equally long journey home is scheduled for the end of July.
The Institute of Atmospheric Physics intends to expand its capability for atmospheric gravity wave research. To this end, other national and international research campaigns are being prepared. The aim over the next few years is to make significant advances in the characterization of these waves in weather and climate forecast models.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Markus Rapp
Link to the DEEPWAVE website