Atmospheric Gravity Wave Radiosonde Campaign 


Who Are We?

The Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) is the Montana branch of NASA’s national space grant program. To date MSGC has performed over 200 balloon borne radiosonde flights to study Earth’s atmosphere (Fig. 1). Students from colleges and universities around the state have made significant contributions to various bodies of scientific knowledge through our funding.MSGC radiosonde balloon launch with Chilean and US student involvement.

In Montana we mirror our commitment to science and outreach of the highest quality with an equally resolute commitment to include people from underrepresented groups in the STEM fields.

Our Accomplishments?

Recently we have conducted rigorous scientific research investigating the atmospheric responses to a total solar eclipse, specifically the propagation of internal atmospheric gravity waves. Always present in the atmosphere, these waves are caused by perturbations of the atmospheric medium and can be visualized by cloud patterns which are observable from space (Fig. 2) as well as the surface. Scientists have been trying to definitively detect eclipse-induced waves in the lower and middle atmosphere for decades.

Atmospheric gravity waves as seen from space. Image credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC.

   Figure 1. MSGC radiosonde balloon launch with Chilean       and US student involvement.

August 21, 2017 MSGC led the national North   American radiosonde solar eclipse field   campaign. Radiosondes are balloon-borne   devices that record in-situ temperature,   pressure, relative humidity, wind speed and   wind direction. We developed the standard   operating procedures for data collection   across twelve launch sites and facilitated an   invaluable proposal-to-publication experience   for the researchers involved.

 July 2, 2019 The South American radiosonde field campaign was the first of its kind. Hourly radiosonde flights from                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Figure 2. Atmospheric gravity waves as seen from space.                                                                                                          Image credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response                                                                                                      Team, NASA/GSFC.

within the path of totality for 24 hours in western Chile provided extremely high-temporal resolution observations of the middle atmosphere before, during and after the eclipse (Fig. 3).

2019 South American radiosonde eclipse field campaign, Chile.

The 2019 campaign produced evidence that the eclipse was the source of stratospheric wave-like oscillations seen in the data following the eclipse. With support from MathWorks®, NSF, and NASA, MSGC researchers developed a Graphical User Interface (GUI) for characterizing the background atmosphere and detecting gravity waves. Scientific results have been presented at the AGU Fall 2019 meeting and a publication is currently in review.

Our work in South America also allowed us to foster working relationships with collaborators like the Directorate General of Civil Aviation in Chile and Dr. Stephen Heathcote, astronomer & director of the SOAR telescope.                                                                                 Figure 3. 2019 South American radiosonde eclipse field                                                                                                                   campaign, Chile.

Eclipse 2020 Campaign?

Replication of 2019 results and expansion to multiple sites remains a critical next step in the scientific process. On December 14, 2020 a total solar eclipse will occur over Chile and Argentina (Fig. 4). Because the 2020 eclipse will travel west to east over the Andes Mountains, it represents the best opportunity for direct comparison to our 2019 results and for spatial comparison among sites.

The 2020 radiosonde campaign will build upon our work in 2017 and 2019 by performing measurements (25 radiosonde launches) from four sites across the path of totality between December 13th  – 15th . The four sites will be comprised of teams from Oklahoma, Kentucky, Idaho, and Montana.

Path of totality for the December 14, 2020 total solar eclipse. Image from

Figure 4. Path of totality for the December 14, 2020 total solar eclipse. Image from

Why Gravity Wave Research?

Eclipses are uniquely predictable, large-scale disturbances in the atmosphere. Developing a better understanding of Earth’s dynamic atmospheric processes relies on taking advantage of rare phenomena like solar eclipses through direct observations in the field. One of the most immediate applications of this research is the improvement of global weather forecast and climate models. Improved climate models will aid scientists in developing climate change mitigation strategies and therefore contribute to an increase in the quality of life for millions of people around the world.

Our Science Objectives?

Through funding from the National Science Foundation, the 2020 field campaign core scientific objectives are to:

  • make high-resolution surface and upper air observations,
  • quantitatively study atmospheric responses to a complete lack of solar irradiance during totality, and
  • assess the performance of high-resolution weather forecasting models in simulating the observed responses.

Project Timeline?

April 2020:

  • Student interns hired

May 2020:

  • Travel arranged
  • Launch site locations finalized

June 2020:

  • Begin 10-week student training with weekly balloon flights

December 2020:

  • Travel to Chile/Argentina for December 14th total solar eclipse