If you think of a scientist as someone who sits in a lab all day, think again. Weather researcher Jamie Pierce does his work on a mountaintop, where rugged, high-tech computer systems enable him to collect climate data in some of the world’s harshest conditions.
In addition to being a researcher for the University of Alaska, Pierce is also an experienced mountain and ski guide. That puts him in the unique position of being able to scale mountain ranges in a severe environment to take readings and conduct advanced data monitoring.
“When I was a mountain guide, one of the biggest challenges was being in a mountain range somewhere and not having the tools to get a weather forecast…so I had to rely on my own research and build my own analysis,” explained Pierce. “When I started doing this research, the first thing I needed was more detailed weather information and data sets and I had to get them in really rugged, remote areas. My experience as a mountain ranger made me the perfect fit.”
Pierce’s work focuses on how changing temperatures, wind, and solar radiation affect the snow pack on the Juneau ice field. While many researchers rely on models based on global temperature averages, Pierce recognized that averages aren’t applicable for complex terrain features like ice fields and mountain ranges.
To perform his research, he has to use sophisticated and extremely durable sensor systems set up in remote stations, as well as Intel-powered computer hardware to analyze and model the data. When he began working, there were no sensor stations along the Juneau ice field. In only three years’ time, he has established seven.
“One of the obstacles in the past was the availability of sensors in mountainous terrain and I changed that by building these stations in really hard areas, made sure that they’re functional and that they had a long data lifespan,” said Pierce. “Ultimately, it’d be nice to do it over 30 years.”
He describes his job as part meteorology, part physics, and part geography — the research extends across multiple disciplines, but at its essence, it’s about forecasting avalanches to help people in the Juneau area, many of whom live under avalanche paths.
“I wanted to highlight the fragile nature of this region that we’re living in,” he noted. “To do that, you need data. But not just any data — your data’s got to be good.”
Intel technology has played a crucial role in facilitating this research in extreme conditions. According to Pierce, the increasing power of microcontrollers and microcomputers has revolutionized the field and allowed data to be gathered in real-time.
“Ten years ago when I tried to do this, the computers were too slow and too expensive. But now the costs have come down so much that it affords people the opportunity to do something they were never able to do before,” said Pierce. “That’s my big motivation: we’re running out of excuses not to do these things.”
Gaining a proper understanding of climate change requires a commitment to gathering data over a significant length of time. Moving forward, a major challenge for Pierce and others like him is ensuring the technology used to conduct their work doesn’t grow too complex or inaccessible for future generations of scientists.
“One of the biggest issues in tech integration is that you have to keep the systems simple. I need instruments that are built robustly, that can run for a long time, but are simple to go and build in the field,” explained Pierce. “In five years, if it’s too complicated a system, no one will be able to replace me.”
For those trying to gain true insight on how the environment is influenced by changing weather conditions, technology is proving to be an invaluable tool. The next step is making sure future generations can pick up where they leave off.
Image courtesy of Alan Gordon