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Head in the clouds

January 7, 2009

Ever lay in the grass on a warm afternoon and stare at the clouds? The big puffy ones that look like a rabbit or a teddy bear? The thin, wispy ones that look like a painter whisked her paintbrush across the canvas?

Storm CloudsMatt Rogers, M.S. '02, Ph.D. '08, spends much of his days watching the clouds as a research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences. Part of the time he studies the energetic properties of clouds in the tropics and another part of the time he is educating students and teachers about clouds, the information they possess, and how to measure them to extract important data. 

Swept away by weather

While in high school, Rogers was intrigued by the IMAX film Storm Chasers, a MacGillivray-Freeman film about atmospheric scientists making field measurements of the Indian monsoon, a Florida hurricane, and Oklahoma tornadoes, and wanted to learn how to make weather a career.

As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Rogers chose physics with an atmospheric science minor, and worked at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR, in Boulder where he did data visualization and programming.

For both his graduate degree and now as a research scientist, Rogers conducts his research on tropical clouds using data from the CloudSat satellite. Launched two years ago, CloudSat, part of NASA's "A-Train" of Earth observation satellites, measures the amount and type of water and precipitation in clouds, giving scientists data about fresh water on the planet and its effect on weather and climate. “CloudSat opened the door to understanding the nature of clouds, which play a big role in weather patterns and climate change,” says Rogers.

Working with students

In addition to data collected from CloudSat, Rogers and other atmospheric scientists use data from Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, or GLOBE, a science program for primary and secondary students worldwide where students, teachers, and scientists collaborate to study and research the dynamics of Earth’s environment. Through CloudSat, NASA, and GLOBE, students and teachers around the world are learning the science of clouds and assisting atmospheric scientists with important cloud data.

Following the orbit of the sun, the CloudSat satellite flies 438 miles above the Earth at more than 15,000 miles per hour, and crosses the equator around 1 p.m. local time every day. At specified dates and times when the CloudSat satellite is passing overhead, students in the GLOBE program take pictures of the clouds, measure air temperature, water quality, air quality, rainfall, and describe the cloud cover. Scientists then compare the data from the students and data from the satellite to determine if the satellite is gathering legitimate data and if the students are measuring correctly.

Spreading the word

Rogers’ role is to educate those students and teachers on clouds and data collection. He’s been around the U.S. and the world – Estonia, India, New Zealand, Mexico - to visit with trained schools, talk with students, and educate the community on CloudSat.

“I think that continuing this international contact with students and teachers will lead to some fruitful research being performed by students and scientists," Rogers says.

With students around the world staring up at the sky, positioning their heads in the clouds, what is the most important thing that GLOBE teaches? “That citizens can be scientists,” says Rogers. "It's a thrill to talk about scientific research with the scientists of tomorrow and make connections with interested teachers and scientists involved in the GLOBE program across the planet.”

Original story appeared in Around The Oval Magazine.

Contact: Beth Etter '03
Phone: (970) 491-3591