Scientists test research equipment in Pagosa

Area residents concerned with unidentified flying objects observed hovering over Archuleta County environs can rest assured that what they’re seeing are just weather balloons.

No, really, and honest to goodness ... weather balloons.

A group located at a building on North Pagosa Boulevard (and based at the Los Alamos Laboratory) has been launching large balloons over the local area in order to beta-test equipment that will eventually make its way to Chile for research on radiation processes in the upper reaches of the troposphere — the lowest level of the earth’s atmosphere.

The campaign is being conducted under the auspices of the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Program, supported by the Department of Energy, which studies radiation throughout the atmosphere for the development of more accurate models for climate change.

On a warm, clear morning Tuesday, SUN staff was invited to a tour of the facility as well as to watch a balloon launch conducted by technicians Monty Apple and Charles Brinkmann. Filled with helium, the balloons carried sondes (instruments for measuring atmospheric conditions) far above the Pagosa landscape, collecting data key to ARM research.

According to project co-leader Eli Mlawer, the project is a collaborative effort with participants from Germany, Italy, Chile and NASA lending equipment and manpower to the research. “The ARM program has a number of locations around the world, dedicated to improving our ability to predict climate change,” Mlawer said.

Should the equipment beta-tested in Pagosa Springs measure up, the material will be shipped to a location near Cerro Chajnantor in Chile, at an elevation of about 17,700 feet, for a study slated in the fall of this year.

The location, situated in Chile’s Atacama desert, is notorious as the driest place on earth, with no recorded or observed rainfall in the 400-plus years since Europeans first arrived in South America. Those dry conditions are optimal for ARM’s Radiative Heating in Underexplored Bands Campaign (RHUBC) observations, minimizing the impact of atmospheric moisture distortion of radiation measurements.

Mlawer also said that the Pagosa Springs facility is unique, in that it can be deployed to remote locations (such as the one in Chile) without necessitating any infrastructure. As such, the facility is completely self-sufficient and portable.

Eventually, data collected from the research should assist scientists in developing models for predicting climate change. With the data, Mlawer said, “We’ll make changes to our current climate models and that will make predictions in the troposphere more accurate.”

SUN photo/Jim McQuiggin
Research for research. Local scientists and technicians for the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program, Charles Brinkmann, left, and Monte Apple, beta-test equipment high above the Pagosa area with a weather balloon. Once tested and deemed ready for work, the equipment will be shipped to Chile for ongoing research that will be applied to predictions of climate change.