To the Ends of the Earth

A research vessel in the Artic; behind it is a night sky.

To the Ends of the Earth

A special team from Los Alamos manages mobile laboratories to enable critical climate science.

By Eleanor Hutterer| August 01, 2020

In 1831, His Majesty’s Ship Beagle sailed from England to circumnavigate the globe. On board were a naturalist named Darwin and a captain named FitzRoy. The broad strokes of Darwin’s work are well known—finches, tortoises, natural selection. But FitzRoy’s work, though also profound, is less familiar. As well as being a ship captain, FitzRoy was a scientist, like Darwin. And like Darwin, FitzRoy published a book many years later, proselytizing a disruptive new way of thinking about the natural world. He claimed that storms could be predicted.

FitzRoy’s science was meteorology. In 1854, when his seafaring days were over, he began a weather-data collection project (which soon became the United Kingdom’s Met Office). He would loan meteorological instruments to ships and coastal towns for the purpose of monitoring the weather. Using the collected data, he began making weather predictions, for which he coined the term “forecast.” FitzRoy’s forecasts, accurate more often than not, were transmitted by telegraph, the newest technology of the time.

Fast forward 166 years. Weather forecasting and climate research have come a long way, now involving satellites, drones, and supercomputers. But FitzRoy’s essential idea—to crowdsource the collection of data by loaning equipment to users far and wide—endures. One such program is supported by a dedicated group of scientists and engineers based at Los Alamos, some of whom are presently on an Arctic expedition the likes of which would blow even FitzRoy’s forward-thinking mind.

Research roadies

The U.S. Department of Energy established a user facility in 1989 that is dedicated to climate and earth-systems research. The Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) research facility is actually multiple facilities—some permanent, some mobile. Distributed among various national laboratories, the ARM facilities enable climate observations and inform sustainable solutions to environmental challenges. It is unrealistic, from a cost-benefit perspective, for every climate scientist to own, maintain, and operate all of the scientific instruments he or she may need. So the ARM user facility is a way for many researchers to have access to a full complement of state-of-the-art scientific instruments. 

As well as several fixed-location laboratories, ARM has three mobile laboratories—suites of equipment that are built to travel. Each mobile laboratory has about 50 instruments that can take continuous measurements of clouds, aerosols, precipitation, and other meteorological variables. These facilities can also host guest instruments or operate in collaboration with experiments from other agencies, making them ideal for multi-agency research around the world. One mobile facility is on extended deployment in Alaska, but the other two are deployed to new locations every year or so, and are managed and operated by the Los Alamos Field Instrument Deployments and Operations (FIDO) team.

A map showing the location of the LANL-managed mobile facilites in the Arctic.
Both of the ARM mobile facilities managed by the Los Alamos FIDO team are either in, or recently returned from the Arctic. The two science campaigns they support, MOSAiC and COMBLE, aim to improve the modeling of climate processes by collecting high-quality data about specific climate phenomena.

The FIDO team is a little like the road crew to a band—they customize, pack, ship, set up, maintain, operate, and monitor all of the ARM mobile-facility equipment for the primary investigators who lead the research. But unlike roadies they also do the equivalent of planning the tour schedule, writing some of the music, and playing most of the instruments. The FIDO team helps choose which research campaigns will get to use the ARM mobile facilities. For each of the chosen campaigns, the team works with the primary investigator to devise the science plan—which instruments will be used, which measurements will be taken, and which environment-specific customizations will be needed. FIDO also helps ARM distribute the data, free of charge, to scientists throughout the world. From campaign conception to closure and beyond, the FIDO team manages everything about the ARM mobile facilities. They have so far conducted over 45 field campaigns in 19 countries. 

When it comes to climate data, the easy-to-reach places are fairly well represented. The ARM program and the Los Alamos FIDO team that supports it specialize in the hard-to-reach areas of the globe. Remote, desolate, and harsh places, like mountaintops, islands, deserts, and the poles, are where the FIDO team goes. Both of the ARM mobile facilities are in, or recently returned from, the far north: One has just come back from Norway, and the other is adrift somewhere in the Arctic Ocean.


The most ambitious scientific Arctic expedition of all time is happening right now, and members of the FIDO team are there. It is the largest full-year Arctic research expedition—including more than 600 expeditioners, representing 60 institutions from 20 countries. Led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (Bremerhaven, Germany), and dubbed “MOSAiC,” for “the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate,” this field campaign will gather data from October 2019 to October 2020 about how ice, atmosphere, and ocean systems interact. A paucity of year-round observations in the central Arctic has hampered thorough scientific modeling of Arctic warming processes. The goal of MOSAiC is to remedy that and enable a better understanding of the factors that make the Arctic ground zero for global climate change.

Ships crossing the Arctic Ocean typically take great pains to avoid becoming locked into the ice. But this is no typical crossing. The Research Vessel Polarstern, a German icebreaker, was frozen into an ice floe, intentionally, to drift with the current through the polar night and across the central Arctic Ocean. The ship is loaded with scientists and scientific instrumentation, and research stations on the floe nearby contain even more equipment. Research staff rotate in and out every two months, traveling most of the way by icebreaker, but often taking a helicopter to cover the final miles to the RV Polarstern.

Members of the FIDO team setting up ARM instruments in a snowy landscape.
Members of the FIDO team setting up ARM instruments at “Met City,” the MOSAiC ice-floe research station dedicated to the collection of meteorological data. In the background, left to right, are FIDO team members Dean Greenamyer, Juarez Viegas, David Chu, Steele Griffiths, and Vagner Castro. In the foreground are ARM personnel Jody Ellis, Misha Krassovski, and Matt Boyer. The RV Polarstern, frozen into the ice in the far background, will be home for the next two months. The ship carries a full load of staff, researchers, and additional scientific instruments. Alfred Wegener Institute, Esther Horvath. Used with permission

A two-month leg on MOSAiC is really a four-month commitment—it can take a month just to get there, especially in winter, and another month to get back. FIDO team member Paul Ortega, who has just returned from a stint aboard the Polarstern, explains, “Just getting there on the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn was not guaranteed. We spent four weeks breaking through the ice wondering if the Polarstern was drifting away from us faster than we were approaching it.” 

Ortega was there to support an ARM mobile facility that is being used by Matthew Shupe of the University of Colorado, who is one of MOSAiC’s co-coordinators. Shupe is collecting data on the properties of, and interactions between, clouds, solar radiation, heat fluxes, precipitation, and aerosols in the air. The fifteen or so shipbound ARM instruments include radars for characterizing clouds and precipitation, lidars for measuring air turbulence, and a suite of analytical instruments for measuring air chemistry. Additional ARM instruments for measuring precipitation, surface radiation, wind, and carbon dioxide are deployed at “Met City,” MOSAiC’s ice-floe station dedicated to meteorological data collection. (Other nearby ice-floe stations for the expedition are Ocean City, Ice City, and ROV city, the last of these being home-base for a menagerie of remotely operated vehicles).

“The Los Alamos component is by far the largest in terms of number of instruments deployed, sophistication of instrumentation, and the amount of data being collected,” says FIDO programmatic team leader Heath Powers. “Most of the ARM instruments are so sophisticated that each would ordinarily require a dedicated scientist to babysit it. But we can operate with just three team members on site at a time because of continuity of experience—our team is intimately familiar with these exact instruments because we’ve been working with them, under all kinds of conditions, for years.” 

Two pictures of a disdrometer, or precipitation gauge, sitting on a tripod surrounded by a ring-shaped wind shield. One is located in the Arctic and the other is located in Los Alamos for testing.
In between science campaigns, the ARM mobile facilities return to Los Alamos, where they are repaired, updated, customized, and tested prior to redeployment. Here, a disdrometer, or precipitation gauge, sitting on a tripod surrounded by a ring-shaped wind shield, gets tested in the high desert of Los Alamos, then deployed on an Arctic ice floe. New Mexico image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility; photo by Anjeli Doty/LANL. Arctic image courtesy of Alfred Wegener Institute, photo by Esther Horvath. Used with permission.

The FIDO team members are mainly scientists and engineers within the Laboratory’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Division. Though they aren’t always subject-matter experts in terms of each scientific experiment, they are unequivocally subject-matter experts in international project management and logistics, as well as experts in the operation of the instruments themselves. 

“Do you know why they are called instruments, instead of machines?” asks David Chu, a FIDO operations manager recently returned from MOSAiC. “It’s because an instrument needs to be expertly tuned in order to operate correctly. Just like musical instruments, our instruments take skill and practice to operate, and they are extremely sensitive to things like vibrations and temperature changes.”

The team has to anticipate these kinds of challenges and prepare solutions well in advance of deployment. Here again the continuity of experience that comes from having a designated team allows previous experience to help. When the FIDO team first deployed an ARM mobile laboratory to Antarctica for a 2015 campaign, it took a lot of time and effort to figure out how to prepare the instruments not just for life in Antarctica, but for life on the ship as well. The solutions developed for Antarctica helped the team plan for the MOSAiC expedition in the Arctic.

For example, the FIDO team needed to install a scanning cloud radar system somewhere on the ship (this was, in fact, the first-ever deployment of a scanning cloud radar over Arctic sea ice). This is an invaluable tool for understanding clouds—specifically for filling in uncertainty in predicting cloud cover, thickness, size, and composition, which are among the largest sources of uncertainty in climate models. The instruments involved are not intended to travel; they are extremely complex and intended to sit safely and stationary on a stable surface. Furthermore, the system needs an unobstructed view of the sky, which is difficult to find on a ship because of masts, crow’s nests, and other infrastructure. The team chose a location on the very top of the ship, but the added weight of the instrument (which includes a shipping container for support) could affect the ship’s balance and handling, so the team needed to add ballast to the bottom of the ship to counteract the added weight up top. 

Reinforcement had to be added to the ship itself as well, because the deck where the scanning cloud radar system was installed is located directly over the bridge, where the captain and crew spend most of their time. Anything that gets attached to the ship, whether instrumentation or reinforcement—also has to be inspected and certified by Germany’s naval architects as well as the owner, manager, and insuring agencies for the RV Polarstern.

A picture of two people inspecting equipment on their ship and a picture of a ship sailing through ice.
FIDO team member Paul Ortega and Colorado State University aerosol chemist Jessie Creamean inspect a suite of ship-bound equipment in Los Alamos before it sets sail to the Arctic. The instruments include a beam-steerable radar wind profiler (gray dome with fences attached), which measure wind velocity; a Ka-band zenith radar (white drum), which probes the extent and composition of clouds directly overhead; and the inlet stack (gray tube with silver dome on top) for the Aerosol Observing System, a collection of additional instruments housed in the shipping container beneath it. New Mexico image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility; photo by Anjeli Doty/LANL. Arctic image courtesy of Alfred Wegener Institute, photo by Esther Horvath. Used with permission.

In addition to installation challenges, there are also operational challenges to overcome. The ship uses radar and many radio frequencies for navigation and communication, so a lot of work went into deconfliction—the process of ensuring that the research instruments didn’t have any effects on the ship’s instruments or other researchers’ instruments, and vice versa. And all that is just to get one instrument—the scanning cloud radar system—squared away.


The other ARM mobile facility managed by the FIDO team was, until last month, not far from MOSAiC, in northern Norway. For four months, FIDO staff collected data on clouds and precipitation at two locations, one on the northeastern coast and another on a tiny island even further north. The campaign is called COMBLE, for Cold-air Outbreaks in the Marine Boundary Layer Experiment. A cold-air outbreak is a high-latitude phenomenon in which cold air from the polar cap sweeps past the edge of the ice and out over open water. COMBLE is studying the dynamics and properties of clouds that are formed during cold-air outbreaks. Though smaller in scale, COMBLE’s ultimate goal is the same as MOSAiC’s: to improve the modeling of climate processes by collecting high-quality data about specific phenomena that presently lack high-quality data.

Prior to COMBLE, this mobile facility was in Argentina, and next it will be deployed to Houston, Texas. The other ARM mobile facility, prior to MOSAiC, was on an icebreaker in the Southern Ocean, and when it returns from MOSAiC it will go to Crested Butte, Colorado. In between campaigns, the ARM mobile laboratories return to Los Alamos to be spruced up—damage gets repaired, parts get replaced, software gets updated. Then the team members prepare the instruments and themselves for their next deployment. 

The long arm of ARM

In his groundbreaking 1863 book, A Manual of Practical Meteorology, FitzRoy wrote, “It seems advisable to consider meteorologic conditions of our world as if we looked down on it from without. When a terrestrial globe is before the eye, relative sizes, spaces, distances, extensions in area, and depths, are less inaccurately viewed.”

The ARM program, with the support of teams like the Los Alamos FIDO team, is working to do just that: to improve humanity’s understanding of Earth’s climate as a whole by helping scientists gather the information they need from the places they need it—from pole to pole and on every continent in the world.

FitzRoy circumnavigated the globe, watching the weather and studying the sea. Now the FIDO team follows in his wake, traveling to the ends of the earth and back again, taking ARM’s modern mobile laboratories to the places where they are needed the most. The ships are bigger and the instruments fancier, but what drives them is unchanged: the eternal, elemental need to know.