Monday, November 28, 2011

Semper Fi to the max!

I had an odd encounter with the military the other day. Heather and I went to have dinner at one of the many eateries here on Diego Garcia called the Chief Petty Officer's (CPO) club. Every place here has the same menu, which is a little odd but it makes more sense in the context of this story. After we ordered our food we were approached by a US military guy who seemed really friendly at first. He hadn't seen us before so he inquired about what we were doing. After chatting about weather balloons he asked us who we were working for and what our "GS" level was. After telling him that we had a temporary DOD contract he proceeded to tell us that we were not allowed in the CPO and we needed to finish our drinks and leave.

Since the military personel here tend to joke around a lot we figured he was kidding, but after he awkwardly stormed out of the bar we asked some of the other diners there, who were all higher up in the military, and they told us that he was "technically" correct. It turns out that some bars are named after the rank or branch that is allowed to eat there during normal business hours, which partly explains why they all serve the same food. The idea is that people can BS and gripe about their bosses or vice versa without worrying about who is overhearing what.

After talking with some more people about the incident it seems that these rules are routinely ignored, especially with civillians, and this guy was way out of line confronting us the way he did. Our contracts also don't mention anything about being restricted from any part of the island that is not "secured". This gets added to a growing list of quirky rules and laws enforced here by the US military and the British government.

In other news, I finally got a chance to go out and check out one of the clubs on a weekend night. Heather is friends with a bunch of british guys who like to drink at the appropriately named "The Brit Club". Here's a picture of that crew.

There's a filipino guy there who sells some kind of BBQ meat on a stick. Not sure what it is, but its good. I didn't actually stay very long since I was pretty tired form a long shift at the sounding site, but I was able to witness a Brit Club tradition where a guy will get up on the bar and drink an entire bottle of baileys out of a leather boot. Not only does it sound disgusting, the look of the guy trying to put down a boot full of curdling liquor was painful to watch. I found an interesting NPR article about Diego Garcia from 2001 that mentions the island is known for nudity and cross dressing! I can honestly say from what I've heard and what I saw the other night at the Brit Club, everything in the article is STILL ACCURATE!!!

The fitness center here is really exceptional. The massages are only $15! Steph and I tried out the aqua massage machines. I had never seen or heard of these before, but apparently them have them in malls in the US? It was interesting, not as good as a real massage though.

Alright enough of that, lets talk about the weather.

The skies have been overcast the past few days, presumably because of the current MJO activity! the rains have steadily increased in frequency, but I haven't noticed any really strong downpours. For awhile now I've thought the MJO tended to form off the equator, but the current situation doesn't jive with that notion very well when we take a look at the OLR anomaly from the last week.

OLR stands for "Outgoing Longwave Radiation" and is used a lot as an approximation for convection and precipitation. However, picture is likely skewed by the existence of a tropical storm that occurred north of the equator. Adam Sobel posted about the unfortunate death of some fisherman in Sri Lanka due to negligence by the forecast office there.

If we instead look at the low-level winds we see that the westerly winds associated with this MJO event are sitting south of the equator like you would expect. So maybe my understanding is still valid.

Here's the current phase space plot of the RMM index from Matt Wheelers site. This is turning out to be a really great event for DYNAMO!

Most of the models forecasted that this event would die out quickly after it started. I can't help but think that this is related to something Dave Raymond found in a paper of his with Zeljka Fuchs. They showed the GFS forecast model in particular systematically damps out a special type of instability thought to be central to the existence of the MJO. Doing hindcast experiments with the data we're collecting right now will be really interesting in this context.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I'm thankful for...

I missed thanksgiving this year because I had to be at the sounding site, so I didn't get to partake in the turkey feast, but I'm ok with that. I've never been that crazy about turkey anyway. I can say that I am so thankful for not feeling jet lagged anymore! I'm also feeling much more comfortable launching the balloons. At first I was constantly worried that I was forgetting a step. The number of balloons we can launch while we're here is limited by how much helium we have, so if we mess up and have to relaunch a few balloons it could mean that we'll have to stop our operations earlier that we planned.

Before leaving the states I picked up a GoPro camera from REI. These cameras are amazing! They're built to be attached to a part of your body or a piece of equipment like a surfboard so its very shock resistent and waterproof. It also has a cool time-lapse feature which I used the other day to make a time-lapse video of the sunset looking northeast from the sounding site.


Steph and I made our first snorkeling attempt in the lagoon near the sounding site, but unfortunately the visibility of the water was too low to get any good video. 

Our attempts to rent a bike and go wind surfing were also deterred due to broken bikes and a lack of wind. I'm still thankful for the nice weather though, which has made it easy to catch up on some reading while I'm lounging by the Indian Ocean.

The MJO is looking quite active. The plot below is courtesy of a report put together by Paul Roundy at SUNY Albany. This plot is meant to show only the aspects of the flow that can be attributed to the MJO. The cool colors are areas of enhanced cloudiness (and precipitation) that are moving eastward towards the DYNAMO array. It already feels like the MJO wet phase is upon us here at Diego Garcia due to the abundant convection we've seen over the last two days. 

However, there's no sure way to really know whether the rain I'm seeing here would not be here if we were in a different phase of the MJO. Maybe in the future we'll be able to address questions like that, but for now I'm thankful for those unanswered questions and the opportunity to come to places like this and be a part of trying to answer them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What day is this?

We made it to Diego Garcia! I'm still foggy from the jet lag and keep forgetting what day and time it is. I knew what to expect from the trip, but it was still pretty brutal. I stayed awake for 90% of each flight:
  • Denver to Los Angeles : ~2 hours
  • LA to Hong Kong : ~15 hours
  • Hong Kong to Singapore : ~4 hours
  • Singapore to Diego Garcia : ~4 hours
but that didn't do much good in reseting my internal clock once we arrived. There's a chance I might get to go on one of the mission in the P3 plane that is stationed here for DYNAMO. That might be cool, but then again some of their missions last 9 hours! And most of the time they just fly back and forth over the grid taking surface and boundary layer measurements. I'm not too stoked about being on another plane for that long, but maybe there will be a crazy convective outbreak when we get into the wet phase of the MJO and I'll get to go storm chasing in a plane!

Speaking of the MJO...
This is the latest ensemble forecasts of the MJO from the European Center model (ECMWF). Looks like we are definitely in for a decent MJO in the next couple weeks. Most other models predict  a similar increase in amplitude coming up. However, the soundings we saw today at DG were exceptionally dry. Not sure what that will mean for how the MJO will be felt down here at 7 degrees south.

So anyway, lets talk about Diego Garcia! This place is surreal. There are so many things that make me feel like I'm on the set of "Lost"! Gavin made an excellent post comparing DG to the island in Lost that was spot on, so there's no need to repeat all that. Let me give you the tour of what I've seen so far.

Here's my hotel room, which is pretty nice. I wasn't surprised that they had television, because they can easily get that through satellite, but I was surprised to find they had terrestrial radio! I'm not sure if they have DJ's there or not.

This is Heather, who works as a field technician for NCAR. She's had a lot of experience in the field having worked for the NAME and VORTEX projects to name a few.

Here's a look inside the Integrated Sounding System (ISS). This is the "control room" that is actually just a shipping container (crate) that was converted into a room to monitor the data coming in. These are connected to the instruments outside that measure things like winds, surface temperature and solar radiation. They have to keep the computers cool so it always has the AC blasting... which is fantastic.

Here's pictures of Steph and I doing our first balloon launches! Although we realize this is gonna get really old really fast, its still exciting!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Almost there!

Bags are packed, rides to the Denver airport are arranged (our flight leaves at 6:30am...) and copious amounts of in-flight reading material has been acquired.

If you haven't been following the state of the MJO, here's a figure to get you up to speed.

This is a popular way to visualize the state of the MJO. It make look really complicated at first, (and in some ways it is) but the interpretation is simple. Basically, as time progresses the line goes counter-clockwise around the diagram, representing eastward propagation of MJO-like patterns. When the line is outside the gray circle in the center we can say an MJO event is occurring. The farther outside the circle, the stronger the MJO event. 

As you can see in the bottom-left portion of the plot we recently had a very large MJO event last month, although it was very short lived. The part of the diagram where this occurred is right over the DYNAMO sounding array, so its just the sort of thing we're looking for! Hopefully we'll see another strong MJO while Steph and I are on Diego Garcia. The forecast (colored lines in the figure below) looks somewhat promising, but I generally don't put much faith in MJO forecasts...

There are some drawbacks to this method of tracking the MJO. I have personally tried a few alternate methods of calculating this index with little success. One of the big issues with tracking the MJO is that it only exist on specific space and time scales, so to isolate the signal you need to find some way of ignoring everything else, including storms that occur every few days and larger scale features like ENSO (El NiƱo). This makes creating a real-time index very difficult.

Our friend Adam, James and Gavin just got back from Diego Garcia and gave us a treasure map to find something they hid on the island! I'm hoping it's gold bullion.

Add this to the ample time we'll have to snorkel and windsurf I think we'll be able to occupy ourselves while on the island. I've also got plenty of research to work on while I'm sitting in the crate waiting for the weather ballon to pop. I recently found this newsletter that lists some day-to-day happenings ont he island including a scrabble tournament, a golf tournament, a 5k run and a boating class!

Here we go!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

It's a Blog!

Time to light up a cigar as we welcome my new baby blog into the world!

The main purpose of this blog is document three things:
  1. Climate research
  2. My travels to Asia (for DYNAMO)
  3. Food
There's a good chance some of my other interests will creep in from time to time, but I'll try my best to keep things restricted to travel, research and food. I won't try to hide the fact that my foodie ramblings are out of place in a blog mostly about atmospheric science, but since I'll also be talking about travelling in general it seems natural to highlight the gastronomical experiences.

First thing's first, what is this DYNAMO I speak of???

DYNAMO is a field campaign to study the dynamics of the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO). A very good and thorough description of the MJO and DYNAMO can be found at a blog maintained by my advisor Eric Maloney and colleagues at The Madden Julian Conversation. But just in case you're in a rush, here's the shortest definition I could come up with:

  • the MJO describes a variation in atmospheric circulation and convection over the Indian Ocean and West Pacific region that reoccurs every 50 days (roughly), or on sub-seasonal or intraseasonal timescales. An MJO event can generally be though of as a area of enhanced convection that starts in the western Indian Ocean and moves eastward until becoming incoherent around the dateline. 
The MJO is a very interesting phenomenon because it has the potential to help us improve weather and climate forecasts if we can accurately reproduce it in atmospheric models. The problem is that there is a lot about the MJO that we don't understand. Its not clear whether DYNAMO will able to fill in all the gaps in what we know, but there's a good chance we will learn valuable information for future experiments.

The part of DYNAMO that I'll be helping with is to launch weather balloons from a tiny island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia, which is a British Territory. Diego Garcia is home to a US military base called Camp Justice. Gavin di an interesting post on the history of the island and how the local inhabitants were pretty brutally removed from the island to establish the military presence. The legal battles from this are still happening to this day as I understand. The island has been used as a launch point for previous conflicts in the middle east and recently there has been indications that the island may be used again for a potential conflict with Iran. Hopefully things won't come to that.

I want to thank my fellow CSU grad students Adam, Gavin and James who helped me come up with a name for this blog and who also have a blog about their trip to Diego Garcia during DYNAMO, which can be found at Sans Continent. The phrase "take it with a grain of salt" comes to us from Pliny the Elder who suggested that any ill effects of ingesting something (in his case it was poison) can be lessened by taking it with a bit of salt. The modern use usually refers to accepting a statement while maintaining a healthy skepticism about it's validity. Since I think of myself as a skeptic in the sense that absolute knowledge is unattainable, similar to how travelling at the speed of light is impossible, I thought their title suggestion was a pretty good one.

While in Diego Garcia I'll be working with Stephanie Slade, who is another student in Eric Maloney's research group. We depart for Asia on Nov. 19th, which is coming up fast! So I'll leave you with a couple maps to give you an idea where Diego Garcia actually is.