Search Ames


Text Size


July 16, 2002


John Bluck                                                                                                 

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.                           

Phone: 650/604-5026 or 604-9000



Studies of cirrus clouds by some 450 scientists may lead to improved forecasts of future climate change. 

This month in southern Florida, scientists will investigate high tropical cirrus clouds composed of tiny ice crystals. The scientists hope to determine how the clouds form, how they limit the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth and how they trap heat rising from the surface and lower atmosphere. This key information will help improve computer programs that forecast global climate change.

"Our objective is to find out how ice clouds affect global warming," said Eric Jensen, project mission scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "The combination of measurements and computer modeling studies will improve our understanding of how cirrus (clouds) may change in response to climate change," he said. "For example, as the surface heats up and thunderstorms become more intense, will larger, thicker cirrus clouds be formed?"

Scientists from NASA, other government agencies, academia and industry will investigate cirrus clouds in Florida with the objective of reducing uncertainties in forecasts of the Earth's future climate. High, tropical cirrus clouds are composed of tiny ice crystals that float at altitudes from 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) to 60,000 feet (18,288 meters). Scientists will take measurements from a variety of aircraft and ground instruments for four to six weeks beginning this month. They plan to analyze and report their data by the spring of 2003. The effort is called the Cirrus Regional Study of Tropical Anvils and Cirrus Layers - Florida Area Cirrus Experiment (CRYSTAL-FACE).

"Clouds are the largest source of uncertainty in computerized global climate models," Jensen said. "We want to measure the ice crystal sizes, cloud optical depths and the heating or cooling of the Earth’s surface caused by tropical cirrus clouds, particularly those generated by intense storms." Optical depth is a measure of the visual or optical thickness of a cloud.

Recent observations from NASA's Terra satellite, with improved sensitivity to detect cirrus cloud systems, suggest that cirrus are present more than expected both temporally and spatially across the planet. Cirrus may act to warm or cool the planet and the tendency toward warming or cooling depends on the extent, duration, thickness and location of the clouds.

A major scientific goal is to use cloud measurements from aircraft to calibrate remote cloud measurements from satellites so characteristics of clouds can be observed more accurately from the higher altitudes of orbiting spacecraft. Better-calibrated satellite observations of clouds will result in improved large-scale measurements of clouds because as satellites orbit Earth, they can observe huge areas of the globe at once. These satellite cloud measurements will enable scientists to make more accurate regional and global cirrus cloud computer models that should reduce the uncertainty of climate change predictions, Jensen said.

"We anticipate flights will be mostly over southern Florida, and occasionally we will sample clouds over the ocean," Jensen said.

Many of the scientists and aircraft involved in CRYSTAL-FACE will be based at Key West Naval Air Facility, Fla., during the experiment. Six aircraft types will carry instruments to measure cirrus clouds. The high-flying ER-2 (similar to a U-2), based at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., will conduct remote sensing of cirrus clouds and environmental conditions, as will the Proteus aircraft, built by Scaled Composites, Mojave, Calif. Scientists will compare the ER-2 instrument readings with similar satellite measurements.

The WB-57 aircraft based at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, will be making in situ measurements of cirrus clouds and environmental conditions. A Citation aircraft from the University of North Dakota will make in situ measurements in the lower parts of cirrus 'anvils.' An anvil is an extensive ice cloud that forms at the tops of deep thunderstorm clouds.

A P-3 aircraft, based at the Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Md., and provided by the Naval Research Laboratory, will use airborne radar to measure cloud structure and intensity. A Twin Otter airplane from the Center for Interdisciplinary Remotely Piloted Aircraft Studies, which is part of the Naval Postgraduate School and is based at the Navy Airport near Fort Ord, Calif., will make in situ measurements of aerosols and take other readings. Ground-based instruments in the study include radar and other instruments. Satellites included in the study will be GOES, Terra, Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission and Aqua.

In addition to Jensen, other scientists from NASA Ames will take part in the CRYSTAL-FACE project. They include Andrew Ackerman and Katja Drdla, Jensen's co-investigators who are working on cirrus cloud computer modeling. Peter Pilewskie of Ames and his colleagues will use instruments on the ER-2 and Twin Otter aircraft to measure trapping of heat and reflection of sunlight by clouds. Max Loewenstein’s experiment includes measurements of carbon monoxide and methane. Paul Bui and others from Ames are responsible for measurements from the WB-57 and ER-2 aircraft of temperature, pressure and winds. Henry Selkirk and Leonhard Pfister are studying development and movement of cirrus clouds. Selkirk also will be the lead forecaster for the mission.

Participants include researchers from various NASA centers including Ames; Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Participating government organizations include the Department of Defense Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy and The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System.

A complete list of participants is on the project Website at:


Project manager Michael Craig of the Ames Earth Science Project Office is in charge of the field campaign for NASA. CRYSTAL-FACE will be the largest mission ever run by the Earth Sciences Project Office.

This research is part of NASA's Earth Science Enterprise, a long-term research effort that utilizes the unique vantage point of space to view our home planet to better understand and protect life here, while exploring for life in the universe. CRYSTAL-FACE will support data validation of NASA satellite investigations, including EOS Terra and Aqua satellite missions and the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission.

A fact sheet about the mission is on the World Wide Web at:

Publication-size images are available on the Internet at:



- end -

text-only version of this release

To receive Ames news releases via e-mail, send an e-mail with the word "subscribe" in the subject line to To unsubscribe, send an e-mail to the same address with "unsubscribe" in the subject line.

NASA Image Policies