Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

CU Boulder Team Discovers Surprising Waves in Antarctic Atmosphere

CU Boulder Team Discovers Surprising Waves in Antarctic Atmosphere

Researchers find a class of wave that ripples through the atmosphere

University of Colorado Boulder researchers who have spent thousands of hours observing the atmosphere high above Antarctica have discovered a previously unknown class of wave that ripples constantly through the atmosphere, likely affecting high-level winds, climate, and even Earth-based communications systems.

Every 3 to 10 hours, these “persistent waves” sweep through the mesosphere, a region of the atmosphere that begins about 30 miles high, the researchers reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research—Space Physics, a publication of theAmerican Geophysical Union. 

These waves are very large perturbations, causing up to 100-degree Fahrenheit changes in temperature in less than five hours, and every time we look, we see them,” said lead author Cao Chen, a Ph.D. student in the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and Aerospace Engineering Sciences department.

CIRES Fellow Xinzhao Chu in Antarctica. CIRES and CU Boulder photo.

Chen and his colleagues, including corresponding author Xinzhao Chu, a CIRES Fellow and professor of Aerospace Engineering, have spent much of the last five years operating a sophisticated, custom-built lidar system in Antarctica. Their goal has been to study some of the most remote, difficult-to-observe regions of Earth’s atmosphere—where it meets space, up to 125 miles (200 km) high. 

The work relied on years of strong support from the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program and from Antarctica New Zealand, which, among other things, hosts the lidar in a new facility at Arrival Heights, about 3 miles north of McMurdo Station.

Every year, at least one of Chu’s graduate students has overwintered at Antarctica to ensure continual, careful lidar observations, and the new discovery reflects that team’s dedication, Chu said.

“This is a triumph for lidar observations,” she said. “This is a surprise, a truly novel discovery, and we could not have made it without such long data sets.”

The data reveal a continual rippling of temperatures in two layers of the atmosphere called the mesosphere and the lower thermosphere, from as low as -189 °F to as high as 90 °F (-122 °Celsius to 32°C). At 60 miles high, the temperature swings reach 100 °F. Chu’s team made observations for 5,500 hours during the last five years, up to 174 hours continually, and never saw the waves calm.

Xinzhao Chu, Jian Zhao and Cao Chen celebrate outside the Antarctica New Zealand building at Arrival Heights, Antarctica, following a season of extensive lidar observations of the high atmosphere. CIRES and CU Boulder photo.

The mesosphere and lower thermosphere are much higher than the troposphere (the atmospheric layer where most clouds form and winds blow) and the stratosphere (the layer where high-levels winds blow and ozone holes can form). Even so, what goes on in the mesosphere and lower thermosphere doesn’t stay there. These waves can carry energy from one region of the atmosphere to another, likely influencing not only weather and climate patterns, but the upper atmosphere, where radio waves bounce and satellites operate. “If we can determine where these waves originate,” Chu said, “it might help us dramatically improve climate and space weather models that try to predict how the atmosphere behaves.” For example, climate models consistently make the far southern stratosphere too cold, a problem for forecasting ozone depletion. “This discovery may shed light on a persistent issue in climate models, the so-called cold pole problem,” said Adrian McDonald, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. McDonald has worked closely with the Chu research group, but was not directly involved in this analysis. “Because of the temperature-sensitive nature of ozone chemistry, this has wide ranging impacts on predictions of the severity of ozone depletion,” McDonald said. “These results could therefore be very useful for climate models focused on the polar region.”

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

This is a joint release of CIRES and the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
Authors of “Lidar observations of persistent gravity waves with periods of 3-10 h in the Antarctic middle and upper atmosphere at McMurdo (77.83°S, 166.67°E)” in the Journal of Geophysical Research—Space Physics, are Cao Chen, Xinzhao Chu, Jian Zhao, Brendan R. Roberts, Zhibin Yu, Weichun Fong, Xian Lu, and John A. Smith (CIRES and Aerospace Engineering Sciences, CU Boulder).
The National Science Foundation funded this team’s research through grants to Chu and Chester S. Gardner. 


Cao Chen
Lead author, CIRES and Aerospace Engineering Sciences, CU Boulder
Xinzhao Chu
Corresponding author, CIRES Fellow and professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences
Katy Human
CIRES communications


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