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Steamboat Magazine

Peaking into the Clouds

04/21/2020 12:21PM ● By Alesha Damerville

Image from Jeff Hall

By Alesha Damerville

“It’s a weather center, testing what chemicals are in the snow.” 

“It’s a HAARP lab where they’re manufacturing weather.” 

Many people look and wonder but aren't exactly sure what to make of the Storm Peak Laboratory near the summit of Storm Peak within the boundaries of the Steamboat Ski Area. 

Image from Aryeh Copa

Storm Peak Laboratory is an atmospheric science research and training center, also used frequently by snow hydrologists. It’s operated by the Desert Research Institute, an organization formed with the goal of tracking natural and man-made climate change and improving the technology used to do so. 

Scientists from all over the country run the lab, which is funded annually by research grants. “Right now, we have a big project with M.I.T. and Purdue, which is funded through the National Science Foundation. The project is to test a new system that can separate out phases of water and measure each phase individually in the atmosphere,” says Storm Peak Lab director Gannet Hallar, who holds her Ph.D. from the University of Colorado’s department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. 

The lab is often used for research training, with students coming from all over the country to field-train in the lab. Hendricks College, Texas A&M, University of Wisconsin, University of Utah, University of Nevada/Reno, Colorado State University and the University of Colorado are just a few of the colleges that have taken advantage of the lab’s resources. 

“With this current project, we’re asking fundamental questions about the atmosphere in order to improve weather and climate models,” Hallar says.

Some questions the scientists are looking to answers:

How does ice form?

How long do clouds persist?

How high are the clouds?

How long do they last?

How do they change?

“We’re really trying to understand what’s called mixed phase clouds, clouds that are both ice and liquid. We want to understand what allows the ice to form, and what allows the liquid to form. By separating the ice and by having just the ice particles, we can use different instrumentation to figure out what made that ice form. What’s at the center of that ice crystal?” she says. “Is it dust? Is it a biological material? Bacteria makes really good ice. We do the same thing with the liquid.”

Storm Peak Laboratory works with other, similar facilities, including a small University of Washington facility in Mount Bachelor, Oregon, and Whiteface in upstate New York, both of which also happen to be at ski resorts. 

“We continuously make measurements of the number of particles in the atmosphere – different trace gasses like ozone, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide – which allows us to be part of the Global Atmospheric Watch Program,” Hallar says.

This program continuously tracks the world’s atmosphere through a number of certified stations. The data is put into a global database housed in Norway, and is used by scientists to publish long-term climate trend studies.

Labs like the one on Storm Peak are able to track harmful particulates in our atmosphere. Scientists maintaining the Steamboat facility have found traces of mercury in the clouds here that can be tracked to Asia. “We’re trying to get a handle on how much of the mercury we’re finding in our ecosystem is domestic, and how much is from international sources,” Hallar says. “Once mercury oxidizes in the atmosphere, it becomes reactant to any biological system. Once it gets in the ecosystem, it moves up the food chain. We’re trying to understand the processing that allows for that to happen.”

Storm Peak Lab has a lot of visitors, but few people actually work in the lab on a regular basis. The lab work is part-time – Hallar works full-time for the University of Utah teaching atmospheric thermodynamics, cloud microphysics and atmospheric chemistry.  

Accessing the lab is quite a jaunt. It can only be reached by hiking, riding several lifts and skiing or riding the rest of the way, catching a lift from ski patrol, or – if the individual has extra time – skinning up. 

As global climates transform and shift at an ever-increasing speed, the work done by the scientists at Storm Peak Laboratory is more important than ever.

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.