TRACER: Storm formation study takes place in Houston

Air pollution, and thunderstorms: two things that are plentiful in Southeast Texas. But, how might one impact the other? It’s a question that a large group of scientists from all over the world is working to answer right here in Houston.

The project is called TRACER. It stands for "Tracking Aerosol Convection Interactions Experiment".

Aerosols are tiny specks of soot, dust, smoke or other particles suspended in the atmosphere.

Michael Jensen, Meteorologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Principal Investigator for TRACER explains what the project seeks to answer.

"The influence of aerosols on storm clouds kind of remains a topic of debate in the scientific literature. We think that aerosols make storms stronger. But we need some observational evidence, and some more advanced modeling to really be able to understand that," Jensen says.

In essence, if storms have more time to brew, then by the time the moisture finally falls to the surface – there’s more of it. This could be contributing to heavy downpours and flooding events, something the city of Houston is all too familiar with.

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James Flynn is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Houston who is also involved in the project.

"With flooding in Houston it kind of depends on how fast it falls and where it falls as to who's going to get the flooding. But, if we can get a better handle on some of these things in the future than maybe that can help make a difference," Flynn said.

When asked if climate change can make this worse, due to the ability of warmer air to hold more moisture, Jensen responded, "You would think, you're going to get more precipitation as you have more water vapor in the air. And that's a great question about as the climate warms does this aerosol effect become more or less important. Um, that sounds like something we should add to our hypothesis."

The experiment includes launching weather balloons four times daily, and a variety of other instruments taking measurements on the ground.

Jensen, on the sheer scope of TRACER shares, "There's on the order of 150 scientists who are participating in this. It's the Department of Energy, NASA, National Science Foundation, NOAA, and many universities."

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Thorough sampling includes multiple sites with various environments – a rural site in Guy, a coastal site in Galveston, and even mobile units that they can deploy directly into storm environments real-time.

"Our group mobile laboratories can move around within the Houston area and kind of fill in some of the gaps within the monitoring network. And we'll be able to relocate based on where we think the convection is going to occur and where we think precipitation might be happening," Flynn explains.

While data collection and analysis will take several years to complete, the findings will not only will be applicable to how we forecast weather moving forward, but also urban planning and development, air quality, and future states of climate change.

Flynn shares that the data collected during TRACER will likely be used in research for decades to come. 

"You know, it's really impressive to see such a broad spectrum of researchers choosing Houston as their laboratory to do this work. What we learn here is not just going to apply to Houston, but it's going to apply other locations globally. So, I think we have a real opportunity to learn something."

The team of researchers also wanted to share that since you may see those weather balloons being deployed throughout the course of their work – which is expected to last a little over a year – it’s completely normal and there is no need to be alarmed.