The cloud surveyors

18 Sept 2023

Meteorology students climb into airplanes themselves in a bid to enable climate developments to be predicted even more accurately. Their goal in the sky is to conduct high-altitude weather observations.

Lea Volkmer can hardly believe it herself: During her master’s thesis, the 24-year-old LMU student was allowed to fly almost to the North Pole in the German research aircraft HALO from Sweden to take measurements in Canada. Operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), HALO stands for High Altitude and Long Range Research Aircraft. It is used primarily for Earth observations and taking measurements in the troposphere as well as the lower stratosphere. With a cruising altitude of up to 15,500 meters, a top speed of 0.9 Mach — over 1,000 kilometers per hour — and a flight duration of ten hours, as well as a payload of three tons and a range of up to 12,500 kilometers, HALO surpasses all existing research aircraft of its kind.

The costs of converting the former business jet amounted to a whopping 74 million euros. “We use it to survey the clouds,” explains the meteorology student. By taking radiation measurements with the specMACS (spectrometer of the Munich Aerosol Cloud Scanner) camera system, the properties of clouds, such as their geometry, droplet sizes and distributions, or phase (water or ice) can be determined, which enables the scientists to work out the role of clouds in future climate developments.

LMU student Lea Volkmer was allowed to fly almost to the North Pole in the German research aircraft HALO from Sweden to take measurements in Canada while doing her master’s thesis. HALO stands for High Altitude and Long Range Research Aircraft.

© Christoph Hohmann

There’s even the odd beach day

Her 28-year-old fellow student Veronika Pörtge even spent a few weeks on the Caribbean island of Barbados at the start of her doctoral thesis with HALO for the EUREC4A field campaign — like the North Pole, a regular starting point for field campaigns in which the LMU Meteorological Institute measures various aspects of the atmosphere in conjunction with many national and international partners. “We’re not in the air for nine hours a day, though,” she points out. For one thing, they have to analyze the data they collect. For another, they have a day off at least once a week to relax on the beach or elsewhere. A truly unusual course of study.

For the meteorology students to be able to make such measurements, they have to learn how everything works during an internship in Coburg where they go gliding — one of the highlights of the bachelor’s program. “It’s super exciting because as you’re flying along, you can experience for yourself how clouds form and how thermals push you up,” says Pörtge enthusiastically. What she particularly likes about working with the instruments is the combination of “software and screwdriver.”

Weather forecasts have been important to people for many centuries — especially so for agriculture in the past. By the standards of the time, there was a lot of physics involved. “Back then, farmers’ weather lore was a serious way of observing and predicting the weather,” says Professor Bernhard Mayer, Chair of Experimental Meteorology at LMU. However, the hit rate was just 60 to 70 percent. To improve the accuracy of the predictions, the Meteorological Institute was founded at LMU a hundred years ago. Mayer works there today along with his fellow professors George Craig, Markus Rapp, Thomas Birner and Mark Wenig. It was in the 1920s that meteorology changed from an observational science to a quantitative science with measurements. Gradually, scientists discovered that, given sufficient information, the weather could even be calculated. Without computers, however, this was still a major challenge at the time.

Within about 30 years, the topic of solar radiation and climate had gained importance alongside weather research. LMU was a world leader in this field. Full professor Fritz Möller, together with his colleague Syukuro Manabe from the US Weather Bureau, developed one of the first radiation convection models, which paved the way for Manabe’s 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics. That’s because these models made it possible for the first time to quantitatively forecast possible global warming. “Climate change wasn’t really taken seriously until the late 1980s,” says Mayer.

Weather forecasting gets better by one day every decade

Thanks to the Meteorological Institute’s research, which is being done in close cooperation with the German Weather Service’s Hans Ertel Center for Weather Research, weather forecasting is also becoming increasingly accurate. “New observation methods and models allow us to improve the forecast by an average of one day every ten years,” Mayer points out. The five-day forecast is now as good as the 1980 forecast for the next day. The maximum predictable timescale is currently ten days.

To enable the scientists to better understand how clouds form, dissipate and react to man-made particles such as particulate matter (PM) and even small aerosols in the future, the institute building houses a measuring station, which is being expanded into one of the largest observation stations for clouds and aerosol in Europe with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the European Initiative for Aerosols, Clouds and Trace Gases (ACTRIS).

View of the Rocky Mountains taken during the CoMet 2.0 field campaign. In the HALO research aircraft, students like Lea Volkmer investigate the role clouds play in future climate developments.

© Christoph Hohmann

Diverse job opportunities

There is no shortage of career prospects for budding meteorologists. “The German Weather Service and private-sector weather services, the German Armed Forces or in aviation and aerospace: many students are already working as assistants at some of the potential employers,” says student rep spokesman Stefan Koppenhofer. About half of the students stay in weather research after graduation, he adds. In particular, companies in the renewable energy or insurance industries are very interested in their expertise. A student himself, Kropp particularly likes the friendly atmosphere at the institute. While you get 300 to 400 people sitting in a physics lecture, in meteorology there are just ten to 20. “This means we are not just numbers for the professors — we are personally acquainted with everyone,” he points out. In addition, he says, there are student council meetings that the professors as well as the alumni attend. “That means we can also get to know each other on a personal level.”

“You can’t go wrong with a meteorology degree,” says Professor Mayer. As a branch of physics, meteorology is a quantitative science. The degree prepares students well for the mathematical and physical challenges. Once you’ve made it through the first few semesters, you’ll have no worries in the higher semesters, Mayer says. In addition, those who are studying the subject today can certainly continue to work on improving weather forecasts throughout the rest of their lives. “And make a lot of positive changes through their work, especially in a time of climate crisis.”

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