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Research Applications



Future Plans

Project List


Our Mission  

      The Institute of Atmospheric Science at Tech has a rich history of research going back to 1959, when the emphasis was on weather modification and hail damage research. Areas of scientific emphasis have broadened today to include aspects of atmospheric studies varying from air quality to convection in the atmosphere to ecosystem structure and the effects of climate on our earth’s ecosystems.

      The expanded mission of the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences is to study the physical, chemical, and biological processes that affect the composition and dynamics of the earth’s atmosphere. Our research and educational programs focus on regionally relevant issues of national concern and global importance. Research conducted in IAS is linked to undergraduate, Master of Science (M.S.) and Doctorate (Ph.D.) degree curricula that provide a fundamental understanding of the atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere. Together our research and educational programs provide opportunities for students to conduct theoretical and applied research and training related to earth-atmosphere systems and their interactions.

      The vision of IAS is to create opportunities for students to become colleagues with IAS faculty in the conduct of cutting edge science to determine how the Continental Earth System functions, and in the transformation of this science into products and services of value to society. IAS researchers convert observations made across scales of time and space, from atmosphere to leaf, into fluxes of heat, moisture, material and momentum. These fluxes are then incorporated into numerical models that describe the behavior of natural systems and that can predict their behavior in the future.

Practical applications of our research

      The new knowledge developed as a result of basic research about the earth’s biogeochemical system is transformed by IAS students and scientists into practical applications. For example, information concerning the carbon cycle has been incorporated into a system called C-Lock that can be used by farmers and ranchers to predict how specific agricultural management practices are likely to affect carbon storage in soil. The C-Lock system can then quantify the potential carbon storage in a way that makes it possible for individual landowners to generate income through participation in the emerging global carbon market.

      In another example, information gained through linked observations and models in the Black Hills is being used to predict when and where lightning-caused fires are likely to occur. In addition, IAS scientists and students make field measurements during active fires using portable, solar-powered mesonet stations specifically deployed in the area of the fire, which are integrated with  larger-scale observations and models generated and maintained by the National Weather Service in order to help deploy fire-fighting resources for maximum safety and effectiveness.

      The IAS strives to improve our understanding of the earth’s natural ecosystems using observations made on a variety of platforms, such as a microwave radiometer, aircraft, and atmospheric soundings. These observations focus on specific phenomena such as lightning and severe storms and are linked to complex numerical models used to predict short and long-term system behavior. Current modeling studies focus on hailstorms, thunderstorm electrification (including lightning), precipitation processes, their modification by cloud seeding, winter orographic clouds, and marine boundary-layer clouds.

          Mesoscale research has focused on the study of factors governing the initiation and organization of convective storms, mesoscale cloud systems, and topographic effects on airflow and precipitation. Recent work has included analysis of severe wind-producing convective storms and observational studies of bow echoes and supercell storms carried out jointly with the National Weather Service, Rapid City, to increase the understanding of these storms and to improve forecasting. 

      An ongoing project involves studies of lake-effect snow storms and interactions of the wintertime Great Lakes with larger-scale weather systems. Another area of continuing research is the study of the influences of surface conditions, especially moisture availability, on mesoscale weather and climate. Related numerical modeling studies include the coupling of atmospheric, surface, and subsurface hydrologic processes in mesoscale models. Work is underway on remote sensing of land surface properties and processes and the use of remotely sensed data to initialize mesoscale models. New areas of work include the application of high-resolution mesoscale models to incident meteorology (as in wildfires) and local-scale ensemble forecasting. Global cloud and aerosol properties are being retrieved from satellite data, and their influence upon the earth’s radiation budget and climate change is under study. Access to the supercomputer facilities of the National Center for Atmospheric Research at Boulder, Colorado, has been of great value in running the larger cloud models.

      The Carbon Cycle Science research program in IAS provides an example of how IAS scientists work together in interdisciplinary teams using a range of analytical and observational tools with the aim of converting cutting edge science into products that can be applied to real-world problems.  The program is anchored by two fully-instrumented flux towers, one located in a forested site in the Black Hills and one located in a grassland site not far from Rapid City. Both towers serve as platforms for real-time measurements of carbon fluxes that tell us how fast the forest and grasslands are growing and whether or not the ecosystems are gaining or losing carbon. In addition, each tower includes instrumentation to measure the movement of water vapor, heat, and energy through the system. These measurements are transmitted to central computers, where the observed data are compared to model predictions of the transfers and transformations of nutrients, energy, and moisture. The models can then be modified to improve their accuracy.



      IAS has state of the art laboratory facilities to analyze key constituents of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. For example, the Biogeochemistry Core Facility, made possible by a recent grant from the National Science Foundation and housed in IAS, is an analytical and research laboratory facility shared by IAS and the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Additional laboratory facilities in IAS focus on measurements of atmospheric constituents that have the potential to affect the radiation and the oxidant balance of the earth system.


      In order to leverage scientific and intellectual resources in the region, IAS scientists collaborate with many partnering institutions such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the EROS Data Center, and with several Tribal Colleges, including Sinte Gleska and Oglala Lakota Colleges. Unique facilities associated with these collaborations include a tethered balloon system operated by IAS students and scientists for observing atmospheric chemistry profiles, ground and aircraft-based LIDAR systems owned and operated by OLC and a local business enterprise, respectively. In addition, IAS students often serve as interns at the local National Weather Service Office, located adjacent to campus and linked to IAS through a fiberoptic cable.

The future

      As IAS looks to the future, we are working to develop additional unique opportunities associated with our region that leverage our historical strengths and developing expertise. For example, the T-28, a specialized aircraft designed to penetrate and investigate severe storms, operated for more than 30 years by IAS scientists for the NSF, retired this year. Plans are underway to procure its successor, the A10 Warthog, which will have enhanced capabilities.  The IAS is also developing plans linked to the establishment of a National Underground Science Laboratory that may be located in a mine in the Black Hills. IAS plans call for the creation of a world class vertical “cloud chamber” that will be used to elucidate fundamental mysteries about the origin and development of atmospheric hydrometeors and particles. Finally, IAS is establishing an advanced Visualization Center in collaboration with the Advanced Computational Facilities established in the Mechanical Engineering Department.

      Most of the Institute’s scientists teach in the University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences. The Department offers a minor in Atmospheric Sciences through the Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Sciences (B.S.I.S.) program, an M.S. degree, and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Atmospheric and Environmental Science. The Institute employs both undergraduate and graduate students from Atmospheric Sciences as Research Assistants.

Project List

      Current IAS projects that illustrate the varied opportunities for students interested in interdisciplinary atmospheric research include:

·       An NSF and NOAA-funded project to develop more effective strategies to prevent soil erosion and the resultant sedimentation of rivers.

·       NSF and NASA projects to link models of the fundamental physics of lightning to the resultant impacts on local and regional atmospheric chemistry.

·       An NSF project to study the interactions of the Great Lakes with winter storms.

·       A NASA project to assess the role of post-Soviet land use change on regional climate

·       An NSF funded project to determine the role of prairie wetlands on the climate of the Northern Great Plains

·       An NSF project to develop a digital on-line archive of airborne in situ observations obtained during 15 years of summer thunderstorm field projects

·       A defense contract on assessing the role of assimilating abridged atmospheric data into incident meteorology scenarios

·       A Department of Defense project designed to develop and test methods to evaluate the potential effectiveness of various fabrics with respect to their resistance to chemical and biological agents.

·       An NSF project to link science and Native American culture through the exploration of special places in the Black Hills. This project, intended to recruit Native American students into careers in math, engineering, and science will choose sites in the Black Hills that students can explore to learn scientific lessons in the context of a Lakota cultural perspective.

·       IAS is participating in Phase II of the Big Sky Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, formed to evaluate options for CO2 sequestration in four Great Plains states. Our main emphasis in this partnership is terrestrial sequestration.

·       A NOAA-funded project involving collaborations with Black Hills State University, the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, and the Western Research Alliance to establish the Great Plains Center for Atmosphere and Human Health.





All photos © Shawn Honomichl.