ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Winter 2009

ESRL tests young scientist’s invention

Like Doogie Howser, TV’s teen M.D., 14-year old Hunter Solheim is ahead of most of the other kids in his Boulder middle school. But Hunter is not only a real teenager, the young inventor also won a U.S. patent early in 2009, for an instrument he devised to measure the temperature of the bottoms of clouds.

Hunter and his dad, Fredrick Solheim, visited ESRL in October to have Hunter’s infrared thermometer –the “IRT” –beta-tested by NOAA scientists who hope to use it to support field operations.

Hunter Solheim assembles instrument.

NOAA’s Ryan Neely watches young scientist Hunter Solheim put together his instrument, an infrared thermometer that can monitor cloud-bottom conditions.

Hunter’s instrument is designed to monitor the conditions of the bottom of clouds. Combined with radar data, the IRT would let researchers and forecasters monitor more accurately the tropospheric environment where weather occurs. For example, operating remotely, the IRT can observe the base of clouds, which tend to be very low (and cold) when they are about to snow. Instruments on NOAA’s GOES satellites measure cloud-top temperature, but cannot “see” through clouds to weather below.

In addition, scientists who use lidar instruments to measure small particles in the stratosphere could use an instrument that can remotely and continuously monitor cloud cover, because the lidar needs cloud-free conditions to measure upper atmospheric aerosols. “We can use Hunter’s instrument to see if it’s cloudy, and to turn our lidars on or off automatically,” said Ryan Neely, a CIRES graduate student in ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division.

In remote places like Summit Station in Greenland, Neely said, automation is particularly useful: “This detection device will help us get more data without wasting laser lifetime or operator time.”

If it tests as well as NOAA scientists expect, Hunter’s instrument will travel to Greenland for the ICECAP project (Integrated Characterization of Energy, Clouds, Atmospheric state, and Precipitation) to take measurements of the atmosphere, clouds, and precipitation for four years as part of the Arctic Observing Network (AON). NOAA is a long-time partner of AON.

Hunter’s father, president of the instrumentation firm Radiometrics, said Hunter was a kid “who always fiddled with things.” Hunter loved spinning the wheels of his sister’s baby carriage and was frustrated when he tried to spin the wheels on a parked SUV. He played with wires, including once dismantling an electric outlet.

Radiometrics has an instrument to measure temperatures of “really cold things,” Hunter said. But it was his “aha!” moment to point it up at the clouds. When he mentioned the idea to his dad, the elder Solheim said, “Brilliant!” They went to work on the IRT, which includes a rain and snow sensor and gauge.

NOAA scientists and Hunter’s family know about his scientific accomplishments, but Hunter keeps a low profile elsewhere. “I don’t talk about this stuff at school,” he said. “I don’t like to brag.”