As rain sheeted down on the roof of an airplane hangar in the mountains of Nepal, a group of researchers watched a small, strangely shaped airplane disappear into the clouds. The plane, laden with custom-built detectors and instruments, was headed for the top of the most powerful, organized weather system in the world: the monsoon over southeast Asia.
“We all had our hearts in our mouths,” said Assoc. Prof. Liz Moyer, a University of Chicago geophysical scientist who studies the atmosphere and the effects of climate change.
The mission had been scheduled with an ambitious goal: to better understand the monsoon structure and its role in the global climate. More than one such mission had already been canceled for weather, customs, regulations or other difficulties. But this one, held together with the hopes of more than 50 scientists, was headed for a different fate.
Accompanied by UChicago graduate and undergraduate students, Moyer was part of a July 2017 international collaboration funded by the European Commission to send a plane over the monsoon for the first time. Their results, which will be discussed this week at a meeting in Italy for the science teams in the project, reveal new details about how pollution and water from near the ground is transported to the stratosphere during the monsoon.
Their questions: How high do the clouds of the monsoon reach? Are they boiling up over into the stratosphere—the second major layer of the Earth’s atmosphere? And to what extent do they carry surface pollution high enough to contribute to ozone destruction? “These seem like simple questions, but no one had ever been to the top of the monsoon before,” Moyer said.
Clouded with mystery
The Asian monsoon is the most massive weather event on the planet, and even apart from the treacherous winds and temperature shifts across altitudes, it makes its own chaos on the ground.
Even getting equipment in had been a struggle for the scientists: They had shipped some of the equipment overseas to India, but trucks struggled to cross flooded roads on the way to Nepal. By go time, not everything had made it—they had to push the plane in and out of the hangar by hand, because that equipment was stalled—but the crucial parts were all there, and they could “MacGyver” the rest of it, Moyer said.