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Jennifer Comstock, PhD

Atmospheric scientist

Jennifer Comstock, PhD

Atmospheric scientist


The U.S. Department of Energy has an avid interest in understanding the repercussions of energy use that produces greenhouse gases. It maintains a research program called ARM for Atmospheric Radiation Measurement, which measures clouds, aerosols, precipitation, and radiation around the world. At ARM, atmospheric scientist Jennifer Comstock devises ways to make this collected data useful for researchers around the world. For 20 years, she has been learning about how clouds form and how the air and landscape contribute to their lifecycle. She uses methods called remote sensing, such as radar and lidar (which is like radar but with laser light) that measure clouds and particles in the air called aerosols. Aerosols reflect and absorb light and also are important in forming clouds in the atmosphere.

Scientists are working with ARM data to understand what influences cloud formation and precipitation. "We want to know about things like the transitions from shallow clouds to deeper clouds. After cumulus clouds form, will they stay shallow like the popcorn-style cumulus clouds that you see on a fair-weather day? Or will they grow to deeper clouds and eventually, maybe thunderstorm-type clouds? We are learning how to represent all those steps in computer models," said Comstock.

Radar, lidar, and other remote sensing methods do not give scientists exactly what they want, however. If researchers want to know the size of cloud droplets, or rain in that cloud, they extract that information from the observed data.

Some of Comstock’s work has been to determine how to convert that information as accurately as possible. She has been involved in more than a dozen field campaigns from the Southern Great Plains to the Amazon. She also spends time training future scientists and promoting STEM education.

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Watch Jennifer Comstock talk about how wildfire smoke affects the climate on KEPR-TV (1:59)