Friday, December 3, 2010

A Year at York

I've just completed my first three days at Western, and it seems like a good time to reflect back on the year of working at York. I should mention first that I will not be disappearing entirely from York. Since I will be continuing to live in Toronto, and will be periodically travelling back and forth to London, the good folks at York have been kind enough to offer me a place to hang my hat while I am in Toronto. As such, my activities with the York University Observatory will continue, though they will be scaled back compared to what they were before my move.

While at York, I got a chance to work once more with many collaborators whom I had known while participating in the Phoenix Mission to Mars back in 2008 and before. Principally, this included my supervisor at York, Jim Whiteway, instrument Co-I responsible for the Canadian LIDAR instrument. As you may recall, the LIDAR experiment was the first instrument to detect falling snow on Mars, an observation later confirmed by the SSI, the instrument to which I was attached. However, while at York I was not working directly with LIDAR data.

Instead, I was tasked with overseeing a modelling effort that sought (and continues to seek) to understand the role played by clouds and precipitation in the atmosphere within the Planetary Boundary Layer (PBL). The PBL is loosely defined as the near-surface zone in which ground-heat driven mixing occurs during the day. For Mars, this layer is up to 5km above the surface by late afternoon, and falls to within a few tens to hundreds of meters of the surface overnight. From the LIDAR, we know that relatively thick clouds may form just below the top of this layer overnight, and that ice crystals grow large enough to sediment out. This provides a means to concentrate water vapour near the surface and prevent it from being transported vertically (and to an extent horizontally as well).

The modelling effort continues. Where the LIDAR comes in is as a validation tool for the resulting model. While initially our progress was rapid, recently things are a tad more difficult. But this is how things go at times in Science, and it's important to stick with the project and see it through. The work has already paid some dividends, however, as we were able to submit a letter detailing some of the interesting effects we were able to observe using near surface fogs (I presented on this work at this year's DPS conference). If the letter is accepted for publication I'll give some details in this space!

It's a bit interesting that like my time at Environment Canada last year I was, once again, working on meteorology. Now, while I learned a great many things during my time at Environment Canada, it was in many ways a bit of a professional detour. However, at York I was able to return to Planetary Science, something with which I am continuing at Western. In particular, Western gives me a way to expand my horizons, since the focus of its program has more to do with geology and astrobiology than with atmospheres. This lets me take my understanding of volatile cycling and dust in the Martian atmosphere and extend it downwards into the surface and the subsurface.

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