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Students observing eclipse to improve weather tracking

University of Idaho, Montana State among 75 institutions working with NASA.

Tim Hearden, Western Farm Press

April 8, 2024

3 Min Read
People observing eclipse
More than 5,000 people gathered on the Oregon State University campus in 2017 to observe the "Great American Eclipse."Oregon State University

Among the millions of gawkers at the total eclipse that is briefly darkening much of the U.S. today, April 8, are students from some 75 institutions who are using the celestial event to learn more about climate and weather.

Groups of students along the path of totality from Texas to Maine will implement two learner-centered activity tracks – engineering and atmospheric science – as part of the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project led by the University of Idaho and Montana State University.

At sites along the eclipse path, student teams in the engineering track are using innovative larger balloon systems to livestream video for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration website, observe atmospheric behavior and conduct experiments, according to the project website.

Atmospheric science track teams are making frequent observations by launching hourly radiosondes on helium-filled weather balloons, project organizers say. The students will work with atmospheric science experts and publish their results in peer-reviewed journals.

Among the students, a team from Idaho traveled to Springfield, Pa., to launch weather balloons beginning Sunday, April 7, and gather data during a 30-hour launch session.

“Knowing this is the last visible eclipse in the U.S. for the next 20 years, the teams we’ve trained nationwide are crucial to gathering the datasets we need,” said project co-leader Matthew Bernards, a University of Idaho associate engineering professor. “The data will continue to improve long-term weather forecasting capability. Better prediction models have global impact on agriculture, aviation and the economy.”

Gathering data

Teams use weather balloons to gather data on atmospheric disturbances during eclipses, including gravity waves that represent a transfer of energy through the atmosphere, the U of I explains. Scientists have been tracking gravity waves for decades to learn more about their influence on weather patterns and forecast accuracy.

In all, 53 teams are divided into nine pods to facilitate effective education, according to project organizers. The project is supported by two NASA programs.

Today’s eclipse will be the first visible one in the U.S. since the 2017 “Great American Eclipse” cut a swath across the country from Oregon to the East Coast. Most of the country will see at least a partial eclipse today; in the West, a 60% to 80% eclipse will be visible in parts of Southern California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, the moon will start to block the sun along its track around noon Central time and will be visible for 4 minutes and 25 seconds in optimal viewing locations. Among its many impacts, the eclipse in some areas could affect the generation of solar power, which accounts for nearly 4% of the energy generated in the U.S., CBS News reports.

In addition to observing weather, the eclipse will provide an opportunity for myriad other science experiments. For example, tens of millions of migrating birds will be passing through the path of totality, and scientists are watching how they react to darkness in the middle of the day, according to Phys.org.

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