More than 60 scientists from renowned institutes in Europe and North America are gathering in Catalonia this month for a major field study on extreme weather, particularly droughts, temperature extremes and wildfires. Predicting extreme weather in diverse landscapes is one of the biggest challenges facing ecologists today. The data collected should help improve predictions of climate and weather models.
The research area, the Ebro Basin in Catalonia, was not chosen arbitrarily, says Oscar Hartogensis, head of the project on behalf of the Department of Meteorology and Air Quality (MAQ) at Wageningen University and Research. The region extends from the Pyrenees to the Iberian system. It is by nature a desert that must contend with extreme temperatures, droughts, and wildfires. But in the last century, a very large irrigation area of 60 x 60 square kilometers was developed, which is used to grow fruits. The region plays a major role in the regional economy.
The effect of human intervention on local weather patterns
In Catalonia, researchers are looking at how human intervention, such as creating an irrigation zone, affects local weather patterns in changing climatic conditions. They then look at how this affects the evaporation process, which determines how much water is used. Hartogensis: “Transportation of warm, dry air from the dry environment to the moist irrigation zone provides additional energy for the evaporation process. This results in high productivity but a very high cost in terms of water consumption (10-15 mm/day). And that water is a scarce resource.”
dry and wet
“The stark contrast between dry and wet land conditions is at the core of our campaign,” says Hartogensis Fellow Professor Jordi Villa. The area is an ideal model for other watering areas, such as California and sub-Saharan Africa. It is an ideal field laboratory for investigating the interaction between the Earth and the atmosphere, and the processes critical to more accurate weather and climate models. “
“We want to better understand the role the atmosphere plays in the water cycle,” Villa continues. How does the atmosphere behave under different conditions and how does this affect the circulation of water? But also the opposite. For example, the presence of vegetation or bare ground can cause temperature differences and affect this process. The models we now use to predict the weather only give a rough picture of these small changes in the atmosphere. We want to improve this.”
Airplanes, drones and radio waves
The LIAISE research project has been running for two years, but is now in the middle of an intense field campaign. Several teams of researchers from meteorological institutions, such as Meteo-France, the British and Catalan Met Office, and the NASA and ESA space agencies, collect data on Earth and in the sky relevant to them. This varies from information about plant leaf opening and soil moisture, to radiation, heat exchange, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and vertical weather features up to 10 kilometers in height.
Data is collected by remote sensing on the ground and using satellites, aircraft, drones, cable balloons, radio sounders and other advanced tools. Some of them were developed by the WUR meteorological group itself. In addition, WUR plays a major role in this project with more than six PhD students and several deployed technical staff and scientists.
Why do we need to forecast severe weather?
Recent events such as wildfires in the United States, drought in the Netherlands, floods in Europe and mudslides in Japan show the importance of forecasting severe weather. “Severe weather is one of the consequences of climate change,” Hartogensis says. “As climate zones move slowly northward, we can expect changes in weather patterns around the world. This information is as important for the Mediterranean as it is for northwestern Europe. By predicting where, how long, and how severe weather events occur, we can prepare cities, agriculture and nature better and issue warnings faster.”
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