Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Ed Zipser, left, Lis Cohen and Jay Mace, all meteorologists from the U., are researching clouds' impact on climate.

Lis Cohen always was bored by swing sets and monkey bars.

"In elementary school I used to lay out in the field on the playground and get my friends to lay down with me and look at the clouds."

Ed Zipser became hooked on weather-watching after a hurricane knocked down trees where he used to ride his tricycle. "I loved big, nasty storms. When I was 5 years old my aunt taught me how to read the New York Times weather map."

Jay Mace was a late bloomer by comparison. He didn't develop a passion for storm study until he joined the Navy. "I became a weather guy because it kept me from turning bolts in the engine room."

Now, the University of Utah threesome has nearly 70 years of combined experience researching storms, and this month they took that expertise to Australia.

For several weeks Zipser and Mace, both U. meteorology professors, and Cohen, a meteorology graduate student, represented Utah and the United States in a multimillion-dollar storm experiment featuring more than 100 researchers from 10 countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and several European nations.

The Tropical Warm Pool International Cloud Experiment (TWP ICE) is a $4.5 million dollar project funded mostly by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The primary focus of the experiment: to figure out how clouds work.

"The effect of clouds on climate is one of the great unknowns of science," according to Zipser.

That's because the clouds we see with the naked eye aren't the giant, fluffy, slow-moving dinosaurs and puppy dogs they seem.

"Clouds consist of tiny droplets of water or tiny ice crystals, and can range in size from a micrometer (1/1000th of a millimeter) right on up to a millimeter size and bigger — big enough to see," Zipser explained.

Depending on the type of cloud, they can form and evaporate in seconds.

"A thunderstorm goes through an entire life cycle in an hour. That makes forecasting very difficult," Zipser said.

In fact, scientists have yet to formulate a precise picture of what they call the dynamics and microphysics of clouds. Meteorologists, who rely on models and simulations, are working without an accurate model of why, for example, a cloud forms, or how particles within a cloud are sized and spaced, and what determines a cloud's life cycle.

Why is this important?

"We want to understand clouds on a microscopic scale so we can determine the impact on a massive scale," said Mace, who is one of half a dozen lead scientists who conceived of the experiment.

TWP ICE scientists and researchers based in Darwin, Australia, tracked storms by air, sea and land using an elaborate network of satellite technology, computers and manpower. Northern Australia's monsoon season is January and February, providing ideal conditions for daily exposure to high level cloud formations.

"Our focus is to understand how high-level clouds, cirrus clouds, impact the climate system. Global warming is the climate change we're the most worried about," Mace said. "We are in the process of doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere since the Industrial Age began. The cause is the burning of fossil fuels, and it is significant because it is drastically changing the composition of the atmosphere."

The relationship between clouds and global warming is the subject of ongoing research. Because clouds are known to impact the temperature on any given day in any given spot on the globe, TWP ICE organizers have spent years plotting this experiment so they can provide meteorologists better tools for understanding what causes clouds to form when — and ultimately, how they may play a role in global warming.

Cirrus clouds get the most attention because it is primarily these upper-level clouds that control how much heat, or energy, escapes to space.

"Cirrus clouds are like a blanket. They trap heat in the system. That energy has to escape somehow. If enough energy is trapped and stored in the system, it can escape from the tropical ocean in the form of a hurricane, or in a big rain event like a 'Pineapple Express,' which is a deep flow of moisture in the tropics like we recently had hit the East Coast," Mace said.

Or, more typically, that energy escapes in little-noticed, daily weather events.

During the experiment, Zipser's job is to help specialized pilots safely fly the storms, getting close enough to gather real-time data within a cloud's fleeting life span, but not so close they risk being swallowed by the storm.

Meanwhile, student researchers like Cohen launched multiple weather balloons daily from land and sea, to gather corresponding air temperature, humidity, wind direction and wind speed data needed for scientists to pinpoint precise conditions at the time the storms are generated.

Cohen also did education outreach, in addition to her research duties during the experiment. Toward the end of TWP ICE, she toured classrooms in Australia with updates on the experiment. She also used cyberspace to link Australian students with Utah classrooms.

Participating schools include Park View Elementary and Bryant Middle School.

"What happens in this part of the world absolutely affects what happens in another part," Mace said.

That's something scientists know definitively.

"Take El Nino, for example. The western Pacific is extremely warm. When that warm water shifts into the cooler central Pacific, it causes big thunderstorms. So those thunderstorms in Darwin, for example, shift to the Central Pacific. In a very real sense, El Nino 'steals Darwin's thunder.' It could cause a dry spell or even drought in Darwin. In Utah, and the Western United States, a strong El Nino means a rainier period in the south and a dryer period in the north. It's all part of balancing out the energy in the earth's atmosphere."

TWP ICE could bring scientists one step closer to understanding how best mankind can care for the ever-changing atmosphere. And for the U. of U. team participating in the experiment, storm chasing Down Under was a chance to show Utah's commitment to helping solve the world's meteorological mysteries.

"We're proud to be part of this," Zipser said. "We get to educate our graduate students. We get to produce the next generation of researchers and professors. We're looking after the future of our field."