York study of blowing snow to improve winter weather forecasting

A team of York University researchers is studying blowing snow in Iqaluit in order to improve winter weather forecasting and better our understanding of weather on Mars.

The team, from York’s Earth & Space Science Program in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, is using a collection of specialized sensors to uncover the precise preconditions for blowing snow and resulting reductions in visibility. The study will also contribute to our basic understanding of how and why dust storms occur on Mars.

"We essentially use the same basis for modelling both blowing snow on Earth and dust storm situations on Mars," says Professor Peter Taylor, who is heading up the blowing snow component of the Storm Studies in the Arctic program, which operates out of the Environment Canada weather station at the Iqaluit Airport.

"Determining these threshold conditions, especially wind speed, and comparing particle measures to visibility reductions will help us better-predict severe weather on Earth," says Taylor.

The team collect the data using a 10-metre tower equipped with sensors, which measure the size and number of blowing snow particles, as well as temperature, humidity, wind, visibility and electric field.

Above: In a photo taken last September, a team of York researchers work on setting up a weather station on Baffin Island. Photo courtesy of Peter Taylor.

Mark Gordon, post-doctoral research Fellow at York, says the Iqaluit team routinely works in -30 C conditions, with plenty of blowing snow, but they’re still waiting for the perfect storm. "So far, we’ve got some good data from a few storms, but we are still hoping for some really bad weather."

Taylor is also part of a York-led team of atmospheric scientists working on the NASA Phoenix Mission to Mars; the data he collects will come to bear directly on this mission. In particular, it will assist in the modelling of aeolian transport processes – the means by which the wind transports particles on the surface of Mars.

Left: Peter Taylor

"This is a crucial area for research, as dust plays such an important role in the atmosphere of Mars," says Taylor. With only a few very thin water-ice or carbon dioxide clouds, dust serves as a major driver of Martian weather systems. It absorbs heat from the sun, reducing the solar heating of the surface, and strongly influences Martian air temperatures.

The York University Iqaluit team’s research is being conducted as part of the Storm Studies in the Arctic (STAR) program, which aims to improve our understanding of the physical features of Arctic storms and their hazards, and our predictive capabilities for them. Funded by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, STAR brings together a wide range of university and federal/territorial government researchers with expertise encompassing the study of the atmosphere, surface-atmosphere interactions and predictive aspects of storms.

For more information visit the STAR Network Web site. To learn more about the weather station, visit the Iqaluit Weather Station Web site.