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Physics Professor Nathan Magee is unraveling scientific puzzles about cirrus clouds

Nathan Magee is no stranger to bad weather. The physics professor hails from Chardon, Ohio, one of the snowiest towns in the U.S. Locked within Lake Erie’s snowbelt, Chardon gets blanketed by more than 100 inches of the white fluffy stuff each year.

Nathan Magee will be using new nanotechnology tools to answer fundamental questions about the way ice crystals behave in the atmosphere.

Nathan Magee will be using new nanotechnology tools to answer fundamental questions about the way ice crystals behave in the atmosphere. Photo (c) Lynne Delade.

But the snow itself didn’t bug Magee as much as the local weathermen, who were “notoriously bad at predicting lake-effect snow,” he recalls. Growing up, he made it one of his “projects” to forecast better than the TV meteorologists.

As the first recipient of the Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize, Magee can work toward that childhood goal. The prize, created through a gift from President R. Barbara Gitenstein and her husband, Dr. Donald B. Hart, supports an annual full-year sabbatical that allows faculty members to further their research outside the classroom. Magee will spend the coming academic year working in experimental cloud physics, unraveling scientific mysteries that could help improve climate change projections.

One of the puzzles he’s trying to piece together involves cirrus clouds. “They are the thinnest, highest clouds that are made of ice crystals,” he says. Current numerical models are notoriously bad at predicting their behavior—there shouldn’t be as many in the sky, and they should be more fleeting—but no one knows why. This disparity between theory and reality is a major source of uncertainty in atmospheric scientists’ understanding of climate change.

But Magee discovered something in 2012 that hints at why the models are lacking: ice crystals aren’t smooth.

Using the highest resolution anyone has ever seen, Magee recorded images using a powerful environmental scanning electron microscope. The images showed that “there are ridges, steps and valleys on the surface of an ice crystal that you can’t see with a light microscope,” he said. “We were surprised.”

Because light hits a mirror-like surface differently than an uneven one, Magee believes this could be a large source of error in cirrus cloud calculations. He has studied only lab-grown ice so far, but as part of his sabbatical research he’ll send a weather balloon up to 60,000 feet to capture samples from an actual cirrus cloud.

“We’ll be applying new nanotechnology tools to answer fundamental questions about the way these ice crystals behave in the atmosphere, and in turn how they impact climate—questions that weren’t accessible before recent technological innovations,” he said.


—Meeri Kim

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