Thursday, September 22, 2022

Storm Peak Lab Field Research Experience

I understand I've missed some exciting weather in northern Utah, but I have been in Steamboat Springs this week teaching an immersive course in mountain field research at Storm Peak Lab with Drs. Gannet Hallar and Sebastian Hoch.  We brought 14 graduate students here thanks to support from the National Science Foundation.  

Hungry students after the long drive to Steamboat

Storm Peak Lab is a mountaintop observing facility that has operated at one location or another near the top of Steamboat Springs Ski Area for more than 40 years.  The current facility was constructed in 1995.  The University of Utah recently took over operations of the lab from the Desert Research Institute.  

Inside and attached to the lab are a bevy of chemical, aerosol, biological, and microphysical instruments to better understand everything from regional air quality and pollution to mountain precipitation processes.  We spent two days at the lab learning about the instruments, planning field activities, and discussing topics such as field-program safety, inclusivity in science, and even how to take effective field notes (this sounds like a yawner but is really important!).  

We also spent time in the field.  Prior to leaving for Steamboat, the students planned a number of field activities to examine mountain weather phenomena.  Then the big monsoon surge forced us to do some pivoting and adapt, which is not unusual in meteorological field work.  We had a couple of sessions using a wind LiDAR, an instrument that can scan like a radar, but uses a laser to detect winds in clear air.   The lidar is pictured below with some of the students and a picturesque rainbow!

Ideally, the lidar is operated when it is dry (the laser does not penetrate well through precipitation and clouds), but we had enough breaks to sample some cool phenomenon, including a cloud waterfall this morning as cooler air penetrated across the ridge pictured behind the students in the photo above.  

Some of the students worked with one of our techs to develop two mobile mesonet facilities, one that attaches to our department truck and another that can be mounted on a vehicle with magnets.  They were able to drive these vehicles from low to mid elevations to sample the thermodynamic (temperature and moisture) structure and dissipation of a fog-filled nocturnal cold pool that developed over the Yampa Valley south of Steamboat on Wednesday morning. 

We've also had students looking at black carbon, which is emitted, for example, by coal fired power plants upstream of Storm Peak Lab, and attending the Yampa Basin Rendezvous, which has also been going on this week and is examining water resiliency in the Yampa Basin.  Finally, there are three students from my class who could not attend as they are participating in another field campaign in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa.  These students will be examining how the topography of those islands affects cloud and precipitation development.  

The entire week has been a great learning experience for students and instructors.  I hope to be able to incorporate such activities into future classes.  


  1. Did you make it over to Buffalo Pass since you were so close? It's on my bucket list to visit because of the TOWER SNOTEL, but I haven't made it there yet.

  2. Thanks for this great post. I've never been to Austria, but it's always seemed to me that one of the reasons that they can get away with so much rail and gondola infrastructure is that it is much easier to hide it within such spectacular terrain, relief, and scenery. Those mountains blow the doors off our little strip of hills. And thanks also for pointing out how expensive it is to use those lifts over there. Definitely something to keep in mind as we consider building one here.
    -Ari M. (SLC, UT)