It’s hard to imagine a cooler-sounding job description than cloud collecting.
This is not to be confused with wool gathering or stargazing. It’s real work, and Paul Casson and Rich Brandt have it down to a science. In fact it is a science, and one that has made important contributions toward understanding such environmental issues as acid rain and other forms of air pollution.
And if you’re going to be into cloud collecting, it’s hard to imagine a cooler place to do it than Whiteface Mountain.
Poking up nearly five thousand feet into prevailing winds that blow largely unimpeded from the west, Whiteface is visited by clouds from across the continent. And with monitoring stations at the summit and three thousand feet lower on the mountain’s flank, the collectors can gather local as well as cross-state information that the clouds carry with them.
Brandt spotted a white-tailed buck near the trailer recently, and hunters favor the slopes climbing Marble Mountain, a subpeak on the north shoulder of Whiteface.
At the summit, a three-story circular tower connected to an imposing stone castle houses another array of instruments on several levels, including a roof that sports a thicket of equipment but no handrail.
To reach the summit station, we drove up the mountain on the five-mile Veterans Memorial Highway and then joined tourists in walking 424 feet through a tunnel and taking a 276-foot elevator ride, watching the bedrock slide by from the rather claustrophobic vantage point of the small, caged car. (There’s an outdoor stone walkway to the top, but it was closed on our visit because it was wet and slippery.) We passed through a locked door and a ground level devoted to emergency radio gear for the number of agencies that have antennae on the tower. A spiral metal staircase took us to a second floor crowded with instruments. A ladder gives access to a third, enclosed story, then the open roof bristling with the research instruments and radio antennae. Though the collection and analysis instruments run automatically, the researchers must calibrate them once a week, including in the winter, when a snowmobile comes in handy.
The station was an early leader in the use of cloud collection techniques to measure air pollution.
“We started cloud collecting here in 1994,” Casson said. “There was a need to measure the effectiveness of pollution controls.”
The research grew from the1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, as scientists and policy-makers wanted to measure whether anti-pollution policies were effective. The major focus for many years was on acid rain, as researchers monitored the levels of sulfur and nitrogen compounds that were acidifying Adirondack ponds and injuring the ecosystem.
Researchers at Whiteface developed the technology for collecting cloud moisture and analyzing its content. The collection contraption is simple. As clouds blow through a cylinder the size of a kitchen trash can, droplets collect on a curtain of Teflon strings and run down into collection bottles. The system, which is now largely automated, bottles the moisture hour by hour, analyzes its content, and sends data for processing in Albany.
This information as well as weather data dating to the 1930s could be valuable in all kinds of research, Casson believes.
“This has a lot of potential for working on issues like climate change. We have data going back to the 1930s,” he said. “We’re looking at getting that out and making it more available.”
From long experience watching the weather and poring over data, Casson says, it can sometimes feel like the measurements are unnecessary.
“After a while, you can predict the chemistry by the weather,” he said. “You know where the clouds come from and you know what’s in them.”
Armed with cloud data tracking emissions from Midwest power plants, policy-makers have made significant progress in reducing acid rain.
So while acid-rain monitoring continues, the research is looking at other air-quality factors. One that has implications for current policy decisions is the concentration of black-carbon particles. The product of combustion, particles are a health threat to people in high concentrations. With the growing popularity of outdoor wood-burning boilers, as well as the potential for greater reliance on wood-burning biomass power stations, it’s important to understand the trends in this particulate pollution.
Measurements from the lower Whiteface station can help draw a picture of what black-carbon particles originate in the immediate area, while the upper station gives a similar picture for air traveling greater distances.
Because this form of pollution can came from a large number of scattered, relatively small sources, combating it will present different challenges from fighting the acid rain caused by major power generators.
“Power plants are easier to get at,” said Brandt.
He noted that technological improvements in outdoor boilers make them much cleaner. Strong scientific data could lead to laws establishing safe standards.
Another area of interest is one that is often associated with water quality.
“The Environmental Protection Agency has to think about nitrogen levels from agriculture and other fertilizing,” said Casson. The nitrogen can cause damaging nutrient-loading in lakes. As with acid-rain studies, the researchers can identify high levels of nitrogen, then use a process they call “back trajectory” to determine where it came from.
Casson sees a lot of potential for the research station, with its mountaintop vantage and prime location in the biologically rich Forest Preserve.
“We want to stay in front of the issues,” he said.