Empowering Urban Communities with Climate Data

Brookhaven Lab develops a second mobile observatory for measuring climate in complex environments, deploys it to Arizona to tackle extreme heat and related hazards

Mobile observatory trucks on a a palm tree-lined street enlarge

Two mobile observatories from Brookhaven Lab's Center for Multiscale Applied Sensing (CMAS) are seen on a joint deployment to Arizona, where they are collecting urban microclimate data to address extreme heat and related hazards. The second observatory, pictured in the forefront, is CMAS's newest addition, giving researchers the ability to compare the atmospheric conditions of two different areas at the same time. (Meghan Finnerty/Arizona State University)

Atmospheric scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory are scaling up their unique approach to collecting urban climate data. After several successful deployments of their first mobile observatory — a pickup truck outfitted with a suite of research instruments — Brookhaven’s Center for Multiscale Applied Sensing (CMAS) has developed a second mobile observatory and a complementary outdoor observatory. The new observatories will help fulfill the CMAS mission to address infrastructure and energy needs across the United States — and help underserved communities reach environmental justice. Their first joint deployment is already wrapping up in Arizona.

“Our goal is to collect climate data precisely when and where it is needed. This type of data is something that has been missing in atmospheric and climate science research,” said CMAS Director Katia Lamer. “Researchers often establish stationary observatories — let's say, on a remote island — and leave them there for 10 years to collect a climate record. But each of these stationary observatories only collect data that represent a very small region. As our society continues to urbanize at a rapid pace, we're increasing the complexity of our environment. We can't assume that two places are alike, even if they're close together. As such, we need to collect more measurements at many places at once.”

Two observatories are better than one

Mobile observatory truck enlarge

This is the Center for Multiscale Applied Sensing's newest mobile observatory. Its research instrumentation is installed on a removable platform, so scientists can easily collect data anywhere they need to, such as on a truck or a rooftop. The platform is also a fully self-contained unit, meaning it has built in ability to produce power, connectivity and data storage. (Meghan Finnerty/Arizona State University)

Cities are often comprised of several microclimates, areas as small as a single park that have unique weather patterns and different responses to climate change. Measuring all the atmospheric diversity of urban areas is extremely challenging with stationary instruments. On the contrary, the CMAS mobile observatory can quickly move to areas of interest and collect precise, local data. So far, the first mobile observatory has traveled across the East Coast and throughout Houston, Texas. Now, with a second mobile observatory on deck, CMAS can cover even more ground.

The greatest benefit of operating two mobile observatories, however, is the ability to compare the atmospheric conditions of two different areas at the same time.

“The two mobile observatories are very similar in terms of the instruments they carry, and that's by design,” Lamer said. They’re both equipped with state-of-the art lidars for measuring atmospheric particles and wind speed up to the base of clouds, radars for measuring clouds, infrared cameras for measuring the temperature of surfaces, and air quality sensors. They also both have traditional meteorological stations and weather balloons for measuring wind speed, wind direction, air temperature, and humidity from the street level and beyond. “With the first mobile observatory, we were able to take all these measurements across different neighborhoods and around different buildings. But sometimes, we need to know relative differences to establish if, for example, a resilience solution is actually effectively curbing extreme heat and poor air quality. Now, we have the capability to simultaneously take the same measurements in different microclimates.”

Pictured from left to right are Parag Joshi, Zackary Mages (Stony Brook University), Edwin Davis, Ka enlarge

Members of the Center for Multiscale Applied Sensing team deployed to Arizona to collect field data during the 2024 intensive observation period of the Southwest Urban Integrated Field Laboratory project stand in front of the newest CMAS mobile observatory. Pictured from left to right are Parag Joshi, Zackary Mages (Stony Brook University), Edwin Davis, Katia Lamer, Zeen Zhu, and Daniel Waxman (Stony Brook University).(Katia Lamer/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

While the two observatories are very similar in instrumentation, CMAS did, of course, make improvements to the truck’s original design. Instead of permanently fixing the research instruments to a pickup truck, CMAS installed the second unit’s instrumentation on a removable platform. The platform is also a fully self-contained unit, meaning there’s no need to hook up to local power or internet access.

“With this design, we can put the platform on a rooftop. We can put it on a train. We can put it on a boat. We can put it anywhere,” Lamer said. “It’s also the perfect size to fit in a shipping container, so we could even deploy it internationally, if needed.”

The two mobile observatories are also now complemented by a stationary outdoor observatory located at Brookhaven Lab. Equipped with one-of-a-kind instruments like a high-resolution lidar, the outdoor observatory is helping scientists better understand climate mysteries such as the transition zone between cloud base and clear air.

The outdoor observatory also serves as a proving ground for new instruments and research techniques.

“The stationary observatory is where the mobile observatories reside when they are not deployed. This way, we are able to leverage the standard climate instruments installed on the mobile observatories to quantify the value added of prototype instruments that we are developing,” Lamer said.

CMAS heads to Arizona

Zeen Zhu, Edward Luke, Katia Lamer, Pavlos Kollias, and Fan Yang pose in front of observatory enlarge

Members of Brookhaven Lab's Center for Multiscale Applied Sensing (CMAS) stand in front of the new CMAS mobile observatory at the new outdoor observatory for climate research. Pictured from left to right are Zeen Zhu, Edward Luke, Katia Lamer, Pavlos Kollias, and Fan Yang. (Kevin Coughlin/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

The new CMAS capabilities are already benefiting a major research project in Arizona, a region that experiences extreme heat events. Scientists at Brookhaven Lab are key partners in the Southwest Urban Integrated Field Laboratory project, a five-year effort to understand the interacting stresses of extreme heat, atmospheric pollutants, and limited water supply on vulnerable communities across Arizona.

Led by Lamer, the Brookhaven Lab team arrived in Arizona in early June and will be stationed there with both CMAS mobile observatories for about a month. This summer, they are conducting the longest “intensive observation period” of any of DOE’s Urban Integrated Field Laboratories. During this time, they’ve been collecting a plethora of urban microclimate data.

“We are gathering information not just for scientists but also for local communities and stakeholders,” Lamer said. “We want to empower them with data, so that they can make more informed decisions and identify suitable adaptation and mitigation strategies to cope with the extreme heat.”

During the month-long deployment, the team has been tackling four different science objectives: measuring the size of the urban heat dome, which describes the area that experiences much higher temperatures than the surrounding suburbs; quantifying if cool air generated by features like golf courses can be transported into neighborhoods to create widespread cooling; assessing air quality and heat equity within different neighborhoods; and mapping the current conditions of areas with planned infrastructure changes, such as the addition of trees or the rejuvenation of buildings.

“Our deployment plans are definitely ambitious,” Lamer said, “but our team is strongly motivated by a desire to make a positive impact on urban communities by helping to find solutions to the extreme heat affecting people living in large cities.”

During this deployment, Lamer and her team have been supported by local community members in Phoenix who participate in field data collection. The CMAS team also made an appearance at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix to share the mobile observatories with climate enthusiasts of all ages.

Project members and climate enthusiasts standing in front of the mobile observatory enlarge

The Center for Multiscale Applied Sensing's mobile observatory and team participated in the Southwest Urban Integrated Field Laboratory project's community night at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Pictured here are several project members and climate enthusiasts standing in front of the mobile observatory. (Meghan Finnerty/Arizona State University)

“The CMAS mobile observatories are science tools, but they are also educational tools,” Lamer said, referencing both the local communities who’ve seen and interacted with the mobile observatories and the people who operate them. The Brookhaven team deployed to Arizona notably includes multiple early career scientists from the Lab and graduate students from Stony Brook University. “It’s STEM training in the field,” she said.

When asked about her vision for the future of CMAS, Lamer said, “It’s not a fleet of mobile observatories. What I think we need is something more miniature and low-cost, something that could be deployed on vehicles that already roam our cities. Picture a shoebox-sized instrument on every delivery truck or city-owned vehicle around the country. Now that would get a us a lot of spatial coverage.”

Until then, the CMAS mobile observatories are already breaking new ground, and the researchers look forward to seeing the first data from the ongoing field campaign in Arizona.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit science.energy.gov.

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