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A SILVER YEAR
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Amherst skies, from both sides, now

Photo: CloudSatCall them weather forecasters, and they're quick to react.

     "We're not meteorologists, we're the technology people," says Cal Swift, director of MIRSL, the Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory at UMass. "We can't credibly say, 'The weather is going to be this.'"

     "Neither can meteorologists!" says Stephen Sekelsky.

     MIRSL gathers climate data. Sekelsky's specialty is clouds and cloud properties. The data is turned over to atmospheric scientists for use in climate modeling, which can predict changes over time or the impact of such large-weather events as the infamous El Niño. Most MIRSL research is done away from New England: Sekelsky's itinerary last year, on projects ranging from cloud radiation research to the problem of icing on small
airplanes, included Canada, California, Hawaii, and Oklahoma.

     It might seem that these disparate locales had no relevance to the weather back home, but that's not true. "It all impacts New England," says Swift in his worldly way.

     One current project, though, will have these researchers' eyes riveted on local skies. That is CloudSat, NASA's cloud-measuring satellite, scheduled to be launched in three years. Swift and Sekelsky are part of a team designing the millimeter wave radar that will allow collection of data from above and below the clouds at the same time, creating never-before-possible three-dimensional images. Once CloudSat is operational, MIRSL and crew will function as one of the ground sites collecting measurements in coordination with the satellite overpasses. Amherst clouds will be receiving some heavy scrutiny, Sekelsky says.

     Swift asserts that by means of such technology UMass researchers "dissect clouds." And the dissecting of clouds is no small business to those interested in climate. Clouds are crucial, says Sekelsky. High cirrus clouds allow the passage of sunlight while reflecting heat back to the surface of the Earth: the original greenhouse effect. The absence of such clouds on a winter night allows the heat of the day to escape.

     Currently, these cloud researchers, who are part of the College of Engineering, don't have an operational facility at UMass. "But we're getting close," Sekelsky says. A site at Tillson Farm is being turned over to MIRSL, giving researchers a station for CloudSat and other New England-based climate projects.

     Having a station on campus will "give us a chance to sit back and do experiments at home on a continuous basis," says Swift. "Instead of going somewhere for a week, we'll be able to look at weather patterns coming over New England every hour, every day. It's so much better to operate right from home base."

– Karen Skolfield '98G

 
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