British scientists go cloud-hopping in the Pacific to improve climate predictions

October 22, 2008

A 20-strong -team of cloud and climate experts from the UK's National Centre for Atmospheric Science will today set off for Chile to investigate how massive swathes of clouds that hang over the Pacific are affecting climate and weather all round the world, including the UK. This new £3M project aims to reduce some of the largest errors currently in our climate models and thus greatly improve predictions of future climate change.

These immense clouds - often exceeding the area of the USA in size - are believed to be central to global climate because they act like a colossal mirror, reflecting sunlight back into space and substantially reducing the amount of energy reaching the Earth's surface. They also help keep the ocean cool beneath them. Both of these effects greatly impact the amount of heat transported to the tropical Pacific affecting its climate and having a knock-on effect for weather around the world.

During this month-long expedition scientists will determine how and why these clouds form so that they can be more accurately represented in global climate models. Joining forces with the UK Met Office and US scientists, the team will fly in two UK research aircraft, swooping in and out of these vast, low-lying clouds, collecting detailed measurements that describe the clouds' properties.

Using newly developed cloud and dust probes fitted to the aircraft, the scientists will determine exactly how the clouds form, how reflective they are and what determines their lifetime. Importantly, they aim to establish whether man-made pollution, from extensive mining activities along the Chilean and Peruvian coasts plays a significant role in changing cloud properties. Tiny particles emitted during mining vastly increase the number of water droplets that form in the clouds and may affect how much rain they produce. The scientists will also find out whether clouds made from these particles are more reflective than cleaner clouds so having a greater affect on climate.

Lead scientist, Professor Hugh Coe from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science said: "These are some of the largest cloud systems in the world and we know they must play a very significant role in climate change, yet we know that climate models do not represent them very well. This campaign is a fantastic opportunity to make cutting-edge measurements in a unique environment and merge them with state-of-the-art climate models. By working closely with the Met Office and international colleagues in this way, we hope to finally hit some of the uncertainties in current climate models on the head"

This UK project forms part of a much larger international programme of work called VOCALS (VAMOS Ocean Cloud Atmosphere Land Study), which considers in detail the complex feedbacks between clouds, ocean, land (the Andes) and how these affect the global climate. The UK team will be joining forces with over 200 other international scientists from 10 different countries to carry out the field campaign, and a total of 5 research aircraft and two research vessels will be involved.
Editors Notes:

1. Contacts:

Dr Louisa Watts, National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) Science Communications Manager.
Mobile (+44) 07786214886 or Desk +44 (0)1793 411609. Email:

Alex Waddington, University of Manchester press office: Tel: 0161 306 3983. Email:

Simon Jenkins, University of Leeds press office: Tel: 0113 343 4031. Email:

Alex Brannen, University of Reading press office: Tel: 0118 378 7388

Marion O' Sullivan, NERC press Office: Tel. 01793 411727; mobile 07917 086369; Email:

Background information and images are available for this story. (best viewed using Internet Explorer) This press release may also be found on:

2. Interviews and filming opportunities:

Professor Hugh Coe is Director of Aircraft Observations at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and is lead scientist for this UK project (UK-VOCALS). Professor Coe is available for interview prior to the start of the campaign and during the campaign (but please note there is a 4 hour time difference between the UK and Chile - Chile is 3 hours behind GMT).

To set up an interview please contact Dr Louisa Watts on mobile no. +44 (0)7786214886. Professor Coe is based at the University of Manchester.

Professor Coe and team will be flying out to Chile on 22nd October 2008. The science campaign will finish on 14th November.

Please contact Louisa Watts if you would like to set up interviews or filming opportunities in Chile

3. Please note that a daily blog has been set up for this field campaign where you can read all about the daily challenges and successes of the scientists, the pilots and support crew. Co-ordinated by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, it is available from the online magazine Planet Earth Online:

4. International VOCALS - VAMOS Ocean Cloud Atmosphere Land Study - is a $30M science campaign spanning 3 years. It involves over 200 international scientists from 10 different countries, 18 universities, 13 research laboratories and 5 operational centres. The field campaign starting on 22nd October is known as VOCALS-Regional Experiment (VOCALS-REX) and is an international field experiment designed to better understand physical and chemical processes central to the climate system of the Southeast Pacific (SEP) region. The climate of the SEP region is a tightly coupled system involving poorly understood interactions between the ocean, the atmosphere and the land. To achieve its goals the VOCALS-REX field campaign plans to: improve model simulations; provide detailed and targeted observations; provide long-term observations; improve regional forecasting. VOCALS REx is being led by Professor Rob Wood at the University of Washington in the US.

International VOCALS website:

5. The UK component of VOCALS is being led and co-ordinated by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) and the UK Met Office. The NCAS consortium consists of scientists from the universities of Manchester, Leeds and Reading. In total about 20 UK scientists are involved. Lead scientists are Professor Hugh Coe (NCAS Director of Aircraft Observations, based at the University of Manchester), Professor Alan Blyth (Head of NCAS Ground-Based Observational Facility & Specialised Aircraft Instrumentation, based at the University of Leeds) and Professor Julia Slingo (Director of NCAS Climate programme, based at the University of Reading).

UK funding (£3M) is being provided by the Natural Environment Research Council, the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the UK Met Office.

UK-VOCALS website:
Natural Environment Research Council website:
UK Met Office website:

6. The UK's National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) is a world leader in atmospheric science. With an annual budget of £9M, NCAS carries out research programmes in climate change science, atmospheric composition (including air quality), weather (including hazardous weather) and state-of-the-art technologies for observing and modelling the atmosphere (including a world-leading research aircraft). We have over 100 research scientists, including UK and world experts to work on our research programmes and provide support to the academic community. These programmes are distributed throughout the UK, at 15 UK universities and research institutes. NCAS is a research centre of the Natural Environment Research Council with its headquarters at the University of Leeds.

7. The National Centre for Atmospheric Science, via the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM) manages the operations of a state-of-the-art atmospheric research aircraft (the BAe-146).

The Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM) is jointly owned and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the UK Met Office. FAAM has been established as part of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) to provide an atmospheric science research aircraft for use by UK researchers on campaigns throughout the world. The modified BAe-146 aircraft is owned by BAE Systems, maintained by Avalon Aviation and operated by Directflight Ltd. The home base is at Cranfield University, Bedfordshire. To date the aircraft has flown missions in west Africa, the USA, Iceland, Antigua, the Adriatic, the Azores, Borneo, Germany and Alaska. FAAM website:

8 . The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £400 million a year from the government's science budget, which is used to provide independent research and training in the environmental sciences.

In support of research, survey and monitoring programmes like VOCALS, NERC provides the UK environmental science community with the means to obtain remotely-sensed data by using research aircraft from its Airborne Research & Survey Facility (ARSF).

The National Centre for Atmospheric Science

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