|Its early summer 1994, 12:34 p.m. local time, and the
Canadian Twin Otter research aircraft is flying 20 meters (about 65
feet) above the boreal forest canopy near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Scientists are busy measuring the exchanges of gas and heat between the
forest and the lower atmosphere when the plane flies into an unseen
vortex of intense, heat-induced windsa "dust devil," as these phenomena
are called in desert regions of the southwestern United States.
Instruments aboard the aircraft clock the wind shift across the wall of
the vortex at nearly 20 meters per second (45 miles per hour) and the
updraft at the center of the vortex at 11 meters per second (25 miles
per hour). Without warning, the strong winds catapult the Twin Otter
upward and sideways in a few seconds. Fortunately, the pilot is able to
stabilize the aircraft and return the plane and crewmembers safely to
the ground, albeit a little shaken up. That summer the Twin Otter flew
into eight such vortices in four months (MacPherson and Betts, 1997).
by David Herring|
June 11, 1999
|As an integral part
of NASAs Boreal Ecosystem-Atmosphere Study (BOREAS)
measurement strategy, a team of researchers, including Alan K. Betts from
Vermont, used instruments aboard the Twin Otter and on forest towers to
measure interactions between the forest and the lower atmosphere. During
each season from 199497, data were collected on the
exchanges of heat, momentum, carbon dioxide, ozone and water vapor to
gain insights into the ongoing "dialogue" that occurs between the boreal
ecosystem and the atmosphere. Their goal is to understand how changes
in air temperature, moisture and carbon dioxide levels may impact the
boreal ecosystem and what role the boreal forest plays in global-scale
One of Betts primary research objectives was to quantify the amount of heat emitted and light reflected by the boreal forest. The vortices of hot air that occasionally sent his colleagues on the Twin Otter "thrill rides" reinforced what other measurements were showingthe boreal forest stores and releases significantly more heat to the atmosphere in the spring and early summer than scientists previously thought.
|Everyone Complains About the Weather|
his BOREAS colleagues observed that, in the spring, daily weather
forecasts significantly underestimated air temperatures over the boreal
forest, sometimes by as much as 1015°C (1827°F) (Viterbo and
Betts, 1999). Additionally, the BOREAS team found that predictions of
cloud cover over the boreal region were often far off the mark.
Everyone complains about the weather, but how could the forecasts be so
wrong so often?
The scientists noticed a pattern that confirmed their earlier suspicions: the temperature forecasts were farthest off in late spring when snow was on the ground and grew more accurate after the snow melted. From summer through fall, the weather models matched actual measurements more closely (Betts et al. 1998). But the following year, come springtime, the forecasts again became increasingly inaccurate until snow melted. Why were the weather forecasts so inaccurate every spring?
BOREAS Did Something About The Forecasts
|How could meteorologists have made this mistake? Betts explains that
in mid-winter the models were fairly accurate because the angle of the
sun is low relative to the horizon (about 20 degrees), days are shorter,
and the amount of incoming sunlight is small. Occasionally after
snowfall, snow also remains in the canopy for a few days and reflects
more sunlight. Yet in May, when the sun angle is higher and days are
longer, there is more sunlight and no snow in the canopy to reflect it.
Consequently, the canopy in dense forest regions intercepts most of the
incoming sunlight, while the snow on the ground below is shaded.
|"Fresh snow on grass reflects about 80 percent of the suns
light and absorbs 20 percent," Betts states. "The more
sunlight that is reflected back up into the atmosphere, the cooler the
surface temperatures. On the other hand, conifer trees (e.g., spruce
and pine) reflect only 10 percent of the suns energy and absorb
the rest, warming the surface and transferring the heat back to the
Yet the global forecast models used by NCEP and ECMWF treated the boreal forests in the spring as if they were snow-covered grasslands with an albedo of 6080 percent, instead of forests with snow under the trees with an albedo of 10-20%. The models estimated that the boreal forest absorbs 100 Watts per square meter in the daytime, while BOREAS measurements show that the forest is actually absorbing between 300400 Watts per square meter (Betts et al., 1998). According to Betts, when the new albedo measurements made by the BOREAS team were entered into the models, there was a large improvement in the accuracy of the temperature forecasts in Spring.
"Actually, this problem was known by meteorologists for some time," Betts notes. "Yet we didnt realize the magnitude of the problem until 1996. We have been trying to update the models for several years, but it wasnt until after the BOREAS field program of Spring, 1996 that we succeeded in inserting these new data into the global forecast models."
|The Green Desert|
|"When you fly over the boreal forest, it appears to be a very wet ecosystemlush and green," observes Forrest G. Hall, physicist and BOREAS project scientist at NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center. "You see so many lakes and fens, and in the spring the ground is covered by melting snow. But the atmosphere is very dry, more closely resembling that over a desert than you would expect over a wet forested region."|
|The lower atmosphere is so dry, in fact, the BOREAS team nicknamed
the boreal ecosystem "the green desert." Afternoon humidity
in May is often as low as 30 percent there, whereas tropical forests
have an average afternoon humidity of 60 percent. According to Betts,
the atmospheric boundary layers that form over the boreal forest
often resemble those boundary layers that form over the southwestern
United States. They can become very deep (up to 8000 feet, or 2500
meters) and very turbulent. ["Boundary layer" refers to the
part of the atmosphere closest to Earths surface; it is typically
very turbulent as large amounts of heat, aerosol particles, and trace
gases are mixing in it and passing through it.]
"There is very little evaporation (in the boreal ecosystem) in
the spring and summer," Betts observes. "An enormous amount
of sunlight is being absorbed by the forest canopy and then emitted back
into the atmosphere as heat. Consequently, it can get very warm
thereup into the 80s Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) in early
|But, ironically, while the boreal air in springtime is hot and dry like a deserts, the ground under the coniferous forests is
still frozen, a foot or two down. So, while the forest canopy is
absorbing tremendous amounts of sunlight and storing it as heat, water cannot evaporate from the
trees as long as their roots are frozen (Betts et
al., 1999). Likewise, while the lakes in the region have all melted in
late spring, they are still very coldtoo cold to release much
Typically, evaporation, or the release of water vapor from the
surface up into the atmosphere, provides forest ecosystems with a means
of cooling off or regulating temperature. As sunlight warms the
surface, evaporation from bodies of water and from the water vapor
released by trees cools the surface. But in the boreal ecosystem, where
very little evaporation occurs in the spring, most of the suns
energy is absorbed and re-radiated back up into the lower atmosphere as
heat; hence the deep, dry and very turbulent boundary layer.
|Improving the Forecast Models|
|In order to construct
accurate computer models of the boreal ecosystem, the BOREAS team must
take many variables into account. One problem the scientists face is
predicting soil temperatures and knowing when the soils thaw. Soil
dynamics are not easy to track from year-to-year because there are thick
layers of moss that insulate much of forest floor. Current models
dont accurately represent the role moss plays in the hydrological
(water) cycle in the boreal ecosystem.
Moss helps keep the deeper layers of soil frozen, as well as the roots of trees, well into the spring, thereby reducing water vapor. When it rains in the summer, the moss acts like a sponge and soaks up a lot of the water. About one-third of the total amount of water that is evaporated by the boreal ecosystem in the summer comes from moss within a few days after a rain.
|BOREAS measurements show that in the spring and summer, only about
one-third of the solar radiation absorbed by the boreal ecosystem is
used in evaporation, while about two-thirds is emitted as heat. But the
ECMWF model computed that half of the radiation is used in evaporation
and half is emitted as heat. The NCEP model computed that 70 percent of
the solar radiation is used in evaporation and only 30 percent is
emitted as heat. Consequently, these models were predicting more
precipitationas much as 50 percent morethan was actually
being measured (Betts et al. 1998).
By introducing their new BOREAS data into the weather models, Betts
says he expects to see significant improvements in forecasts of daily
temperature, cloud cover and precipitation amounts. It typically takes
a few years to develop and test these forecast model changes, Betts
explains. When the changes that are being tested this summer are
complete, he plans to go back and re-analyze both the old forecasts, the
new forecasts, and the actual measurements to get a quantitative measure
of how much the models have improved. He wont get the results of
those analyses until the year 2000, but loftier goals await over the
"Today, global forecast models are evolving into Earth system models," Betts states. "New land measurements are improving land surface meteorological forecasts significantly, so that there will be another round of improvements to the models in 2001. Then, we will enter our revised understanding of the global carbon cycle into the Earth system models. Over the next 5-10 years, global forecast models will become fairly complete Earth system models."
|During their flights aboard the Twin Otter
to measure the interactions between the boreal forest and the lower
atmosphere, the BOREAS team encountered eight vortices during the summer
of 1994an average of one for every 1800 km (1100 miles) flown
(MacPherson and Betts 1997). They ranged in diameter from 150 to 300
meters (5001000 feet), and reached some 1500 meters (5000 feet) in
Functioning a little like "mini-tornadoes," these vortices provide a mechanism in low wind conditions for the surface to transfer enormous amounts of heat and carbon dioxide up into the atmosphere. The BOREAS team measured fluxes of heat and carbon monoxide anywhere from 30 to 60 times greater than average during these vortex events.
"The vortices are a kind of dry-air convection,"
Betts says. [Here, "convection" refers to the upward motion
of warm air, which rises because it is less dense than adjacent cooler
air, just as warm air rises above a wood stove.]
"There are a number of different ways in which the atmosphere organizes to transfer heat away from the surface," he adds. "The fact that the boreal ecosystem uses these vortices is an interesting curiositybut very important when youre flying 20 meters above the forest canopy."