It’s All In The Detail

This post is the viewpoint of myself, Scott Collis, and does not represent the views of the United States Department of Energy

Dear readers, I have some exciting career news. For the next twelve months I am going to be detailed, at 25% of my time, to the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. I will be reporting to the division director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Sciences division (EESSD).

EESSD logo used in reports and other materials.

While I have not started yet and the full scope will be determined collaboratively with my DOE colleagues, the first projects I will be tackling will be related to the DOE BER Research Development and Partnership Pilot (RDPP) and Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce (RENEW) – Earth and Environmental Systems programs. A focus will be on improving access of typically underrepresented groups to the division and generally increasing the presence and visibility of the division to all scientists. So many of us who have been funded by EESSD for many years know the structure of DOE programs and their funded activities can be difficult to navigate and many of us have benefitted from having others help us understand the myriad of opportunities at DOE.

This old model does not lend itself well to increasing the diversity of EESSD science. If we are going to attract the attention of scientists at typically underrepresented institutions (eg HBCUs and MSIs) we must aid in the navigation of EESSD. This will be achieved with improved clarity of language, having clear and welcoming points of contact, round tables and outreach efforts.

In my view, this work is essential as unintentionally limiting (and to labor the point, not by design) EESSDs science teams to well resourced and well connected institutions the Office of Science will not have the diverse workforce it needs that allow diverse ideas to flourish. Who knows? The next great earth scientist who solves big problems like warm rain onset, representing ice bearing clouds in climate models accurately or how the world’s carbon stocks will change in a changing climate may be sitting somewhere at an institution that has yet to engage with DOE.

2022 ARM/ASR Joint User Facility and PI Meeting – Day One

Impromptu poster session with Monica.

Well, kind of day half! Woke bright (dark) and early at 4am for the 7am flight from O’Hare to the nation’s capital. After a smooth travel day I arrived at the very familiar Rockville Hilton with a small posse of Argonne Scientists.

The isolation (albeit easing) through the pandemic changes one’s brain chemistry. I have not been in a place where so many people know me and I know so many people in a very long time. Furthermore there are people here I have developed professional relationships with via zoom during the pandemic and now I meet them here in glorious, high def, lag free, three dimensions!

Team Argonne-ARM selfie!

One such person is Dr Monica Ihli from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Monica was plugged into the ARM Facility after the start of the pandemic and she has been working closely with Max Grover (an RSE in my group) on data proximate compute as part of our funded work in workforce development. She is working with Max to build Jupyterlab based cyberinfrastructure right up against the many petabytes of ARM data. We even had an impromptu poster session! That kind of interaction does not happen over zoom.

Latest results from the TRACER Aerosol team.

This first, half day, of the meeting had two sessions that necessitated an early morning flight. A session on the TRACER field campaign that just finished. And, in a new innovation a session on emerging technologies. The TRACER session provided an awesome overarching view of the 1 and a half year deployment to Houston. Numerous partners, already 38TB of data in the archive and, at this meeting, 32 posters being presented mere days after the conclusion of the deployment! Some notables for me was the different temporal and spatial scales of the aerosol (those tiny particles that have big impacts) measurements and early efforts to classify and tag storms impacting the region.

Finishing the day with hot pot with friends.

The new and emerging technology was fascinating. So many technologies that, if realized, would be amazing. One technology I have my eyes on is the Snow Pixel by Particle Flux Analytics. It is like a digital camera for measuring snowflakes by sensing when a flake falls on them. And that was one of many, I have a page of notes to follow up on, especially for our plans for the CROCUS measurement deployment.

A great first day, finished up with some hot pot with fiends.. I am slowly regrowing that Science-Social nexus in my brain again that has gone un-fed for a long time.

The ARM ASR Science Team Meeting

A note: This represents the view of a DOE funded scientist, not the Department or any of its programs.

Screenshot from a talk I gave at the ARM meeting 13 years ago!

I did not have an iPhone back in 2009 when I attended my very first ARM Science Team meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. So I have been unable to find any pictures of the event. I did find my old presentation I gave! I arrived in Ky after flight from Australia which got delayed and an unexpected stop over in LA. I arrived barely in time to give a talk on vertical motions in storms!

That meeting was in spring (in the USA) and now we are here in fall 13 odd years later and next week will be first in person ARM-ASR science team meeting since the pandemic started in the USA. I used to work for the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and now I live in Chicago and work for Argonne National Laboratory and my work is a lot closer to ARM’s mission.

Real work gets done. ARM ASR science team meeting in Potomac, March 2013.

I am excited to be back at this meeting in person (in Rockville, Maryland). This will be my first “Programmatic” meeting since the Pandemic began. What is a programmatic meeting? you ask. Well funding bodies like programs within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science will provide support to universities, laboratories etc the same way programs in, say, the National Science Foundation will but they are more mission driven. Programs, like the Atmospheric Systems Research, or ASR, program, need those funded by them to work together.

Breakfast to Beer. Science all day. Tyson’s Corner, 2018.

The science ASR seeks to tackle (making our simulations of the planet more accurate and useful for the nation) can not be achieved by any one investigator. ASR forms working groups and special task forces and these groups meet, along with those who manage the programs, imaginatively called… wait for it… Program Managers, meet once a year. These meetings have many purposes but three are: To allow for DOE supported and associated scientists to understand the needs of the programs (ASR and the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement, or ARM program) and closely aligned programs, to allow the program managers listen and gain a deeper understanding of the breadth of science their programs fund and to allow everyone to interact, learn and forge new collaborations.

The last in person ARM ASR Science Team meeting. North Bethesda, June of 2019.

It is an exhausting week. In some years I have had days containing 7am breakfast meetings right up to 8pm science, dinner and a beer meetings. It is the one time all those I work with are in one physical place and it presents unique opportunities. I joke with Louise that it is the only domestic meeting I come back from jetlagged.

The ARM ASR meeting coming up next week is special. It is the first in person meeting in three years and it has been an eventful three years. Much has happened in all our lives, professionally and personally. There will be a lot of catching up. Those who read my blog know of the TRACER field campaign. That has been planned and executed all in this time. I will be heading to the meeting with excitement and an open mind, 13 years after that excited young man traveled to Louisville and his world changed.

Fallen For Fall

Commuting is back!
Great morning for a club ride.

Louise and I were having a discussion about seasons, economics and.. well.. humanity. I am so lucky to be with someone who is so deeply cerebral and who’s proclivities (going deep and philosophical on a subject) match my own.

I posit Australians who have never experienced boreal fall don’t understand just how seasonal and how much Americans revel in seasonality. We were discussing how the fleeting nature and rarity of spring and fall have spawned many celebrations of its passing. While the depths of winter can seem interminable (but not without its special beauty) and the dog days of summer are long, fall and spring seem fleeting and folks seem keen to soak it up.

Spring and fall are also very colorful. The monochrome of winter giving way to the blues, pinks and purples of spring and the green of summer giving way to the flames of fall (Autumn for those of the Commonwealth). The district change in the weather is also a cause for celebration. The first sweet warmth in March and a crisp morning in October.

On fire!

Strangely due to some work and mental health issues, fall to spring are my peak training times. Cycling makes me happy and being happy makes me cycle. I get busy in summer and forget the love of the bike. Come fall I start thinking to spring races and get my behind into gear. I then curse myself for wasting away the warm 5am starts as I shiver in sub-freezing conditions before work (or wimp out and head to the pain cave to Zwift). Ironically fall is my rebirth, perhaps the reason why it holds a special place in my heart.

This year I am targeting an earlier ride than Barry so I am going to ramp up on the Forge Fat Bike race. So the training has started! Well and truly fallen for fall!

Engaging With Blacks In Green (BIG)

“There is a deep connective tissue between Argonne and communities in Chicago. This is not shake and bake” – Naomi Davis (paraphrased)

Blacks In Green in Woodlawn, Chicago.

I am writing this post from the Blacks In Green (BIG) green living room garden. I was asked to come here this week to help translate climate science for a coalition of groups fighting for climate energy justice. What is climate energy justice? To reduce our CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions requires change. As does building resiliency against the worst impacts of climate change. Change, at times, means picking winners and losers so when the United States Government, corporations and communities encourage a transition to a clean energy future it must be a just transition.

Readers of this blog will know I avoid politics. In fact I can not be involved in the crafting of policy or political advocacy in my official role due to the Hatch Act. There IS however the Justice40 initiative which directs agencies to ensure 40% of of benefits from clean energy transitions goes to underserved communities.

Shalanda Baker, Director, Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, DOE.

Now, back to my role here. It is threefold: To give a presentation, in the clearest most understandable terms, of the science behind climate change (modeled in the style of Katharine Hayhoe), to make myself available to this community as a resource and, finally, to respectfully and quietly listen and learn the challenges of communities in Chicago when it comes to weather and climate. This is all part of a long term strategy: Argonne in Chicago.

The stunning garden at Blacks In Green’s The Green Living Room.

Furthermore our proposal to the Office Of Science’s Urban Integrated Field Laboratory call has BIG as well as other communities in Chicago as research partners. We have recognized you do not study communities. Communities do not want to be studied! Rather you work with communities as a trusted partner to empower them with the tools then need to understand the earth air and water where they live, how it will be impacted by a changing climate and equip them with the information they need to drive change and achieve a just energy transition.

Thank You.

Goodbye Houston. IAH on climb out.

Day eight, a travel day back home. Very thankful to be heading home. It has been a good, long, good trip and very worthwhile. I have a better understanding of Houston meteorology, better understanding of ARM Operations which will help me be a better scientist working with ARM data and many new connections to the area and collaborations.

Daniel, a big U of H fan!

Of the seven days I was mission scientist we called three “up” days. Two (the first two) were a slam dunk. Yesterday’s was less so with storm firing more to the east and north of the TRACER domain. The data from yesterday will still be interesting in studying a transition to an atmosphere more conducive to storms.

David Oaks. Michicagian to Alaska, Norway and now Texas.

Mike Jensen, the overall PI (lead) for TRACER will now take over as the Mission Scientist while Chris Nowotarski from Texas A&M will take over from Bobby as forecast coordinator. It was really nice today to not be “on”. Not having to plan my day around spinning up and having the call.

Gabi Pessoa, from theater in Rio to balloons in Houston.

Most of all I am thankful to the AMF site staff. David Oaks, the technical lead, Daniel Bahrt, Mark Spychala and Gabi Pessoa. Not only are they key to collecting data that will change our understanding of our planet they do it with style and a passion for the mission that is amazing. It is interesting to think when I attended a break out meeting at an ARM-ASR meeting (I think it was in 2016) when folks were just starting to talk about Houston and then I decided that we (Bobby and I) should start studying Houston storms using data from the local NWS NEXRAD radar it would lead to this.

Mark Spychala. Valpo grad, Army and NEON nerd now geeking on Texas clouds.

Also amazing, when Mike led the proposal and we came up with ideas for deploying to Houston that our science thoughts would lead to the uprooting and redeploying of people. Fact is, as much as we try, ARM’s deployments can not be fully automated. In La Porte, where we are deployed to the middle of an airfield, launching sounding balloons takes careful coordination with the airport, authorities and Houston TRACON. And even beyond soundings each technician does daily rounds where they inspect instruments, clean windows and work with visiting scientists like myself.

What now? For one I will be back in August for another tour of duty. Details still to be determined. With the ARM C-Band radar in automated mode our team will have our work cut out for us working out exactly what we got. And that’s where the coming weeks I will be wearing my other hat. Not a Mission Scientist but an ARM Translator. Working with the team to make ARM radar data more useful to our users. Can’t wait to dig into that data and so grateful to the folks on-site who make it possible. I leave Houston thankful.

Out On A High Note.

And we are done. A seven day tour as mission scientist for ARM TRACER done! Seven days and three up days, super stoked with that, especially this last day which was just a bonus. Forecast turned distinctly more positive for the science we want to do yesterday (understanding the impact of those little particles on big clouds) so we called an up day for my last day in Houston.

Done… Celebratory beverage at St Arnolds

So now I sit here biting my fingernails waiting for storms! I’m sitting in the trailer at the ARM site hoping to get video of one last sounding launch. Plus some time lapse of I HOPE developing storms. It has been an amazing trip. I have learned a lot about Houston, the meteorology, ARM and AMF operations and the folks in Houston. Being immersed is important. Back in Chicago I would have so many distractions. Here I watch the atmosphere develop.

Leading up to the forecast call I am watching the data, watching the sky and visiting the sites. I listen to the forecast call, take in all information and make a call on operations. I then watch how it pans out. As talked about in previous posts, forecasting creates an impression on all those involved and aids in future analysis.


With today’s forecast being so uncertain a lot hinged on the morning (7am, 12 noon in Universal Coordinated Time or UTC aka Zulu or “Z” yeah.. a lot of odd stuff) sounding and how dry the air just above the surface is. So, because it seemed “right” I took Mark up on his offer to come out and launch the 12Z sonde.

What a treat. There was a fine layer of fog over the site and the light was MAGIC.

So lucky to work for such an amazing organization.

So, scratch “get up at 5am on Sunday to drive to a world class facility to launch a balloon to help in your forecast” off the bucket list. A high note indeed. We looked at the sounding and kept the “up” forecast in place. It’s 23:30Z right now (yeah a long day). Still feeling good about the call. Even if it is a miss it is an interesting miss and the weather turns messy tomorrow (yay! A travel day with tropical-like storms!). I am really looking forward to getting back to my family. 2.5 years or lockdown and heck yeah I miss them when I go away (took all of about 24 hours). Proud of the work I have done here and so very humble to be part of something so amazing.

Putting The M In ARM

ARM’s Cloud Radars
Total Sky Imager and sun photometer.

Atmospheric Radiation Measurement. A facility 30 years strong. And the focus is on measurements. We take measurements. ARM collects measurements with a mission to improve the representation of clouds, aerosols (those tiny particles) and anything that impacts how sunlight travels to the earth and how the infrared radiation emitted from the earth travels our into space in any kind of earth simulation. ARM does not do the improving of simulations.

We target our data so users can do that themselves and use the funding from various agencies (including our sister program, the Atmospheric Systems Research program). ARM looks to scientists like me (yes I have a dual role here, I am supported by the ARM program to value add ARM radar measurements AND I am a scientist who proposes to ARM to deploy instruments) to suggest through a proposal mechanism where we should go to make the most impactful measurements.

Micropulse LIDAR.

ARM measurements are comprehensive. A simple breakdown could be instruments that measure the properties and chemistry of tiny particles, instruments that measure clouds, instruments that measure both and those that measure the air (the meteorology) in which they reside.

Those vital balloons.

I could go over each instrument and its purpose but the would be a lecture, heck a whole course, not a blog post. Some of my favourites are our cloud radars (of course) which shoot radio waves (super high frequency. Your wifi is ~3GHz our Ka Band radar is 35GHz! ) the micropulse LIDAR which instead of shooting radio waves shoots laser beams and, one of my all time favorites due to its simplicity, the Total Sky Imager (TSI).

Warm work!

The TSI cam from the idea of “hey I can see the whole sky in this shiny salad bowl”. It is my got when I am trying to work out “what happened?”. And, of course, as you have all garnered from previous posts, one thing ARM does very well is launch weather balloons.

So after taking all these photos in the morning (sweaty business even at 8am) I relocated back to the hotel for the weather briefing and ops call. The forecast was improving but is a real head scratcher for tomorrow. So we are calling an up day for tomorrow. The key will be moisture near the surface. If there is just a slight bit more than forecast we will get some nice storms. If not enough, no storms until a major chance comes through tomorrow night. Fingers crossed all!

Important People, Important Work.

Day five of mission scientist duty for TRACER. And a Friday to boot! In addition to my normal duties I have offered to step in an guide a visitor to the site today. Jorge Gonzalez is a professor from City Colleges of New York and NYU at Albany and a member of an advisory committee to the area of DOE that manages ARM, BERAC.

Full hat and dayglow!

The best day for Prof Gonzalez’s visit was also the day we have major crane operations building the tower and lifting the radome for the CSU C-Band radar. So it was full safety and full safety gear. While the site staff are the experts I could offer a little science talk for the visitor. I love showing folks ARM sites as it always ignites my passion for the facility and the amazing depth of observations we take. No other agency comprehensively measures the atmosphere like ARM. From water coming out of the ground through evaporation, to those tiny particles and the chemicals that make them up to how water and ice clouds are layered in the sky.

Prof Gonzalez and Dr Rahman enjoying a tour.

And our data is free and open. That’s right, all these people laboring to take measurements and they don’t get to keep it to themselves. Thanks to the taxpayer we give it all away for scientists to do with as they will (we hope and make sure we take the right measurements to improve earth system simulations).

Jorge and postdoc Kalimur enjoyed their visit, albeit it a bit hot under those hard hats and departed to the University of Houston campus to launch their own weather balloons. I relocated to a lunch spot between the site and my hotel to listen in to the forecast call and lead the operations call. There was a little excitement as soundings showed the atmosphere to be moister and a little more unstable than expected.

A cocktail bar with screaming fast internet! Ya gotta work where you can work!

But not enough for those big clouds that have us so excited to study the impacts of little particles. So we decided to keep those valuable soundings (and more valuable helium) in reserve for a day with more scientifically interesting clouds. Sunday onwards is seeing a dramatic shift in weather patterns. Talk turns now to safety in case we get so much rain next week we get some flash flooding. Fingers crossed for amazing weather for science that is also non-damaging to Houston. Always the creed of the weather geek. Now, it’s friday night. I am missing my family terribly but it is time to unwind a bit. Kemah has a distinctly Louisiana feel (more Cajan, less Cowboy) so relaxing while writing this post with a cocktail or two in a funky place called the Voodoo hut. Here’s to the weekend and some weekend science all!

Texas, Fine Weather and Fine People

Clear still morning.

Today is a down day. A day to catch up on some tasks back in Chicago, a day to do some planning and a day long planned to pay a visit to our friends at the National Weather Service. The winds blowing moisture in from the Gulf of Mexico slackened overnight which meant for the first time in a few days now early morning rain clouds.

In fact it dawned clear! I headed down to the nearest coastline on Galveston Bay and just missed some Dolphins, but I could see a lot of scared fish still jumping out of the surface. Really happy with my choice of Kemah as a place to stay as it is so walkable.

We are running dry in Houston!

As you may have seen from my posts we have an active forecasting activity during what is called the “Intensive Operational Period” or IOP of TRACER. We forecast for a variety of reasons; It helps us target out limited (1 in 4 days during the IOP from June 1st to September 30th) days we can call for enhanced operations for soundings (weather stations attached to balloons) so it is essential to forecast the most scientifically interesting days to do so! Right now pickings are a bit slim. Which is why nailing the right days to go “up” is essential. Second, it creates a record of “what happened”. By becoming “operationally aware” and recording our forecast briefings we create a impression of the sequence of events which will aide in future analysis.

The best folks!

Finally; it is FUN! While this sounds flippant, fun matters. Having fun is important. Being fun brings in young scientists and engages the old hands in mentoring them. I was young once. Heck even Mike Jensen was young once and now he lead a massive field project. I am SURE a future leader is one of our forecasters or assistants on this project today.

Radar controller for the world famous KHGX radar!

To this end I am so grateful to the fine folks at the National Weather Service at the Houston Galveston office in League City, Texas. Having the team at the NWS office who really know their stuff is so vital. The calls we have each day are forecast discussions. The forecast team (forecast coordinator, three bench forecasters for verification, clouds and convection and air quality) and 1-2 assistants (most important job) come into the call presenting the current picture of the weather. Everyone on the call then discusses this and amends the thoughts of the team.

Having the NWS as the first “sounding board” is amazing as they add the local knowledge to a diverse ground of minds focused on Houston. It was a real pleasure to visit the office today. So happy to have these NOAA professionals involved in enhancing a DOE project aimed at improving our knowledge of those tiny particles and their impacts on big clouds to improve weather predictions. From tornadoes to climate!