Stanford University
Loon balloon in flight

New project to open years of atmospheric data, improve climate models

Led by atmospheric scientist Aditi Sheshadri, the research aims to leverage Loon balloon data, high-resolution simulations, and data-informed methods to understand the impact of gravity waves on climate and improve their representation in climate models.

BY Danielle Torrent Tucker
ClockMarch 26, 2021

A Stanford researcher is spearheading a project to better understand gravity waves, tiny ripples that help drive the overall circulation of the atmosphere.

Profile image for Aditi Sheshadri
Aditi Sheshadri

The first step: Estimate the momentum transported by gravity waves and make these new estimates available to the research community. And that’s no small task.

Since 2013, Loon LLC, a spinoff of Google parent company Alphabet, has been launching super-pressure balloons into the atmosphere to provide global internet coverage. From their thousands of flights, the balloons collected high-resolution position, temperature, pressure and wind observations every 60 seconds – an unprecedented source of information that can be used to better understand gravity waves.

“This is really, I think, the next frontier in understanding atmospheric dynamics,” said Aditi Sheshadri, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) and principal investigator of DataWave, a new project supported by Schmidt Futures’ Virtual Earth System Research Institute (VESRI). “There’s much to be done in terms of both observations, high-res simulations, and modeling of gravity waves.”

DataWave aims to make gravity wave statistics from Loon balloon data publicly available in order to assess the sources, propagation and breaking patterns of gravity waves. From there, the researchers will use machine learning to improve both short-term forecasts of extreme weather and long-term climate change projections.

“Current representations of gravity waves in climate models involve various simplifying assumptions” said Sheshadri, an assistant professor of Earth system science. “And yet, we know that if we take a climate model and change the estimates of gravity waves just a little bit, you fundamentally alter the climate.”

With the international collaboration, Sheshadri and her colleagues hope to better understand how gravity waves impact large-scale circulation patterns, including the polar vortex, a swirl of frigid air that can bring extreme cold into parts of Europe and the United States for months at a time. Gravity waves are also thought to play a primary role in driving the quasi-biennial oscillation, in which a belt of winds blowing high above the equator reverses direction, impacting ozone depletion and surface weather.

DataWave is supported by Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative founded Eric and Wendy Schmidt that bets early on exceptional people making the world better. Schmidt Futures’ Virtual Earth System Research Institute (VESRI) aims to radically improve the credibility of climate predictions. The funding supports the training of three PhD students and seven postdoctoral researchers at the intersection of atmospheric dynamics, climate modeling and data science.

Sheshadri is also an assistant professor, by courtesy, of geophysics, and a center fellow, by courtesy, at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Project collaborators are affiliated with Goethe-Universität, Northwest Research Associates, UK Met Office, Loon LLC, New York University, Rice University, Laboratoire de Meteorologie Dynamique, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. For more information about the project, “A Data-informed Framework for the Representation of Sub-grid Scale Gravity Waves to Improve Climate Prediction,” visit the DataWave website.

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, 650-497-9541

Aditi Sheshadri

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

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