Penn State professor to lead field campaign to study climate in Baltimore area

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kenneth Davis, professor of atmospheric and climate science at Penn State, will lead a team of 23 investigators from 13 research institutions in a new field campaign supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to study surface-atmosphere interactions around Baltimore to see how they influence the city’s climate. The new campaign, called the Coast-Urban-Rural Atmospheric Gradient Experiment (CoURAGE), is expected to start in October 2024 and run through September 2025.

CoURAGE will contribute to the Baltimore Social-Environmental Collaborative (BSEC), one of four recently funded DOE Urban Integrated Field Laboratories. BSEC and the three other urban laboratories, located in Arizona, Texas and Illinois, will expand the understanding of climate and weather events and their impact on urban systems.

Davis is the principal investigator for Penn State’s portion of the multi-institutional BSEC laboratory, led by Johns Hopkins University. The CoURAGE science team includes Benjamin Zaitchik, Johns Hopkins professor and BSEC’s principal investigator, along with nine BSEC co-investigators.

With its aging infrastructure, growing susceptibility to heat and flooding, and ongoing issues with air and water pollution, Baltimore is characteristic of many large industrial cities in the Eastern United States. This was a motivating factor in deciding to propose an urban laboratory in Baltimore, Davis said.

“It’s a city that needs to adapt to thrive in a changing climate,” Davis said. “The city also needs sound evidence regarding options for climate change mitigation — options like urban greening. We also need to partner to generate climate science that addresses the priorities of people and neighborhoods in the city that historically have been neglected. Many of our cities face these challenges.”

BSEC will collect long-term data on the urban atmosphere and land-atmosphere interactions. However, it does not have enough resources to observe all the important variables within the city, nor can it cover “the neighbors,” as Davis put it — the atmospheric environments upwind of Baltimore that affect the city’s climate.

DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility will provide instruments and infrastructure for CoURAGE. During CoURAGE, ARM instruments will help provide coverage where BSEC cannot, forming much of what the campaign’s science team calls “a four-node regional atmospheric observatory network.”

CoURAGE is expected to include three ARM nodes. The primary node will be located in Baltimore at Morgan State University’s Clifton Park site, where ARM will operate a portable observatory consisting of instruments, shelters and data and communications systems.

Two nodes will be smaller observational arrays located at key sites outside the city. One will be located in a rural area northwest of Baltimore, on land typical of the plains found between the coast and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Air at this this rural site is often carried into Baltimore by the prevailing winds. The other site will be on an island in the Chesapeake Bay designed to sample atmospheric conditions representative of the bay, the southeastern boundary of the Baltimore metropolitan area.

The fourth node will be an existing long-term observatory operated in Beltsville, Maryland, by Howard University and the Maryland Department of the Environment. Located north of Washington D.C., the observatory will measure the air that is carried into Baltimore when the winds come from the southwest, traveling across the nation’s capital.

With data from multiple sites, CoURAGE will be able to document the degree to which different surface conditions around the region can change Baltimore’s atmospheric environment, according to Davis.

“The CoURAGE campaign will be an important contribution to BER’s urban initiative,” said DOE ARM Program Manager Sally McFarlane. “The ARM observations will help improve understanding of atmospheric processes in urban regions, the surface and environmental conditions that drive them, and how our models of urban systems need to be improved.”

The team will collect what it calls impact and process measurements. Impact measurements are tied to conditions that directly affect residents, such as microclimate, air quality or street flooding in a particular area.

“Those are the properties we want to get right in order to understand the environment people live in,” Davis said. “Most of ARM’s data will be process measurements. These measurements will help scientists determine whether they are getting the right answers in models for the right reasons.”

Davis said his BSEC colleagues have found that wealthier neighborhoods have more existing climate and air quality measurements, so they are focused on putting instruments in lower-income parts of Baltimore. The plan could evolve as the BSEC team hears more from stakeholders in the city.

The project’s community engagement team, led by Tonya Sanders Thach and Samia Kirchner, professors  at Morgan State University; Genee Smith, professor at Johns Hopkins University; and Lisa Iulo, associate professor of architecture at Penn State, has gathered a steering committee that includes a broad array of community members and representatives of city government to guide the scientific effort. The steering committee, in turn, connects BSEC, and now CoURAGE, with a diverse cross-section of Baltimore residents to engage in knowledge co-generation, citizen science activities and educational programs.

Other Penn State faculty who are part of CoURAGE are Kelly Lombardo, Natasha Miles, Ying Pan, John Peters, and Scott Richardson, all faculty in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science.

ARM’s last urban campaign, the TRacking Aerosol Convection interactions ExpeRiment (TRACER), took place around Houston, Texas, from October 2021 through September 2022. Led by Penn State alum Michael Jensen, a meteorologist at Brookhaven Lab in New York, TRACER studied the effects of aerosols on storms in the Houston area. Jensen is now a co-investigator for CoURAGE.

The other institutions whose investigators will contribute to CoURAGE include Brookhaven National Laboratory, City College of New York, Columbia University, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, Princeton University, University at Albany, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, University of Maryland, College Park and University of Texas at Austin.