TV blog

Operation Cloud Lab: Secrets Of The Skies

Presenter

I joined Operation Cloud Lab: Secrets Of The Skies as the expedition leader and also as a meteorologist.

The plan was to fly from Florida to California, looking at the science of the skies.

But as well as scientists, there were plenty of other people on the team including three pilots, a ground crew of 14 that followed the airship by road and a full production team including two camera crews.

Not everyone could be on board at once – the airship would never have got off the ground!

But I was really fortunate to spend a lot of time on board and flew most of the way across the continent.

Operation Cloud Lab: Secrets of the Skies takes a fascinating journey into the clouds

Exploring in three dimensions rather than being limited to making observations from the ground was a revelation to me.

The clouds in the tropics around the Gulf of Mexico are huge, and being in the sky with them really brought home the vast scale of the forces at work.

Towering cumulus cloud in Florida



We were able to travel over, under and through these monsters, revealing that clouds are about as far from the popular image of light and fluffy floating puffs of cotton wool as you can get!

They are dense and heavy and full of destructive energy.

I remember looking down at the cloud layer from a plane as a child, and daydreaming about exploring this new world of unknown places, so I was very excited the first time we flew straight through a cloud.

I leaned out of the airship as far as I dared into the heart of a cloud and found that it was a dark, damp mass of floating fog (of course!) – no mysterious worlds – my childhood fantasies were crushed!

The team undertake an ambitous experiment to weigh a cloud.

Storm clouds gather over the airfield in Texas

However, as a meteorologist I loved the dramatic weather of southern Texas.

The airship was grounded but the team stood on the airfield watching as powerful squalls passed through.

Autocumulus over New Orleans

The weather maps showed some of the storm cells begin to circulate, a warning of potential tornadoes.

I was desperate to see a tornado but for the sake of the expedition (and the airship) we were lucky none came too close.

The stormy weather was great for cloud spotting and an opportunity to use some of the wonderful words used in meteorology: cumulonimbus capillatus, altostratus mammatus, crepuscular rays

Crepuscular rays over Texas

I was looking forward to seeing some awesome lenticular clouds as we flew through the Rocky Mountains – these are smooth rounded clouds that often take on the shape of flying saucers, or stacks of dinner plates.

They are caused by high winds flowing over obstacles such as mountain ranges and after days of looking out for them, we saw the most amazing display in New Mexico.

But it was on the one day we weren’t filming!

Getting over the Rocky Mountains turned out to be one of the most challenging parts of the whole journey.

It was difficult for the airship to gain sufficient altitude to clear the mountains without venting expensive quantities of valuable helium, so we had to shed weight instead.

First we took most of the seats and equipment out of the airship, then the sound man had to get off, followed by the director until eventually it was just me, the cameraman and the pilots!

Luckily we just made it over the top, with a few hundred feet to spare.

Felicity Aston is one of the presenters of Operation Cloud Lab: Secrets Of The Skies

Operation Cloud Lab: Secrets Of The Skies is on Wednesday, 16 July at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. For further programmes times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by Emiliano

    on 10 Aug 2014 21:56

    Wonderful program and very interesting project.

    On the point of "weighing" the air, could you please explain how you obtained the value of 0.2 kg/m3? Since moist air has lower density than dry air, I suppose you looked at the difference in density between outside and inside the cloud. Say you went from 1.1 to 0.9 kg/m3, you measured 0.2 kg/m3 of buoyancy, rather than weight? I'm a bit confused, please help! Thanks
    Emiliano

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by harris

    on 31 Jul 2014 01:04

    I was wondering why you guys never mentioned the name or type bacteria which was found in the clouds. Is this bacteria formed in the sea and evaporated along with water vapors to form clouds?

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by thickbloke

    on 21 Jul 2014 21:03

    Had the promise of a good factual programme but there is too much load dramatic music to really relax and enjoy what is being said!

    Sorry but this seems to be the new meme from programme producers now as well as the continual scene setting for those with an attention span of a goldfish. Didn't make it to the end, sorry.

    Perhaps its just my age!

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Graeme Hewson

    on 20 Jul 2014 20:14

    A very interesting programme, and thanks for posting this, Felicity.

    Right from the start of the programme, though, I was wanting more background information. Oh, there's an airship sitting on the ground! Well, how did it get there? How did the project get launched? Who funded it? (I found out later the BBC funded it.)

    I went to the programme's Web page, and there are some links, but, disappointingly, none are about the project directly, or the people involved.

    I assume the scientists will write papers, or have done so. Will these be published in open access journals, considering the British public funded the project through the licence fee?

    Why was the project based in the USA? Watching the programme, I had expected it was co-produced with an American TV company (which it wasn't). Was the main reason that that was where the airship was?

    I found some links through searching, which others might find interesting:

    Entries on Jim McQuaid's blog (So far I've only read the latest, written in December.)
    http://jimmcquaid.wordpress.com/category/cloud-lab/

    Orlando Sentinel article about the blimp, "Spirit of George"
    http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2013-09-23/business/os-blimp-environment-orlando-california-20130923_1_airship-inner-secrets-clouds

    WIBS sensors - interesting to see they were invented at the University of Hertfordshire
    http://www.herts.ac.uk/research/stri/research-areas/cair/particle-instruments-and-diagnostics/wibs-sensors

    Another BBC article
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2014/28/operation-cloud-lab

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by mjmwhite

    on 20 Jul 2014 10:54

    Perhaps they were talking Globally?

    http://policlimate.com/tropical/global_major_freq.png

    Maybe not...

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by mjmwhite

    on 20 Jul 2014 10:49

    http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/Landsea/gw_hurricanes/fig33.jpg

    That increase in hurricanes hitting the USA. Where did those figures come from? Not NOAA I assume?

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by d0m

    on 18 Jul 2014 20:43

    Hi
    Wanderfull!!
    A thought; we know bacteria live in cooling units (Legonaies desses), could industrial units be sending lage amounts of bacteria up into the clouds increasing the reless of more latent heat & thus inreasing the terbulance & volativity of clouds?
    Have fun.
    d0m.

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Geof

    on 18 Jul 2014 14:58

    I found the programme fascinatingly engrossing, but was a bit puzzled by the `weighing` of the cloud. The cloud that was measured, was assessed as weighing 100 tonnes and we were told that some cloud formations could weigh `many thousands of tonnes`. Given that the clouds have no visible means of support, how are they able to defy the Laws of Gravity? It would be nice to know!

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Lois Pallister

    on 18 Jul 2014 04:41

    Really enjoyed the programme and thought much of the filming was absolutely stunning.
    Envied you Felicity at being able to enjoy such a wonderful experience as that.

    But I have to say Felicity, although it was very refreshing to see such a programme where man wasn't blamed for the current rise in world temperatures for once, I was simply stunned when you looked surprised at your findings regarding the extra particles in the 'dirty clouds'.

    It has been labelled 'Global Dimming' for at least the past 10 years and there was a programme about it aired on the BBC back in about 2005 I think.

    In discussions of disagreement with people who believe that we are causing global warming via our CO2 emissions, I would often point out that although I am all for cleaning up and relying far less on fossil fuels, I believe that the cleaning up process will cause the temperature of the planet to increase rather than decrease due to the very fast dissipation of the global dimming effect.

    I would almost invariably then be asked “What is global dimming?”

    I would first explain that in order for raindrops to form in the clouds, there has to be something for the vapour to condense against such as pollen particles and use the fact that it doesn’t rain in a steam room as an example. The only way a drop hits you in the steam room is because it dropped from the ceiling.

    I would then go on to explain that due to manmade pollution there are now extra particles that come from soot and contrails etc.
    Many of them seemed to find this interesting.

    I would go on to say that the extra particles resulted in a higher number of smaller raindrops rather than a smaller number of larger drops.
    All fine.

    It was only when I got to the bit about them staying up there longer until they were heavy enough to fall and the fact that they made the clouds act like mirrors reflecting the sunlight away and resulting in less of it hitting the ground, that those people would suddenly look at me as though I had three heads.

    I really do hope a few of them were watching your programme.

    Very glad to see it covered for the second time only on UK television but have to confess that I am left wondering whether you really haven't heard of the term and the tests carried out over the Maldives or whether you were unable to name it as such due to some kind of censorship!

    Almost everyone I mention it to here have never heard of the term whereas many of my American acquaintances have.

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by Erza Scarlett

    on 17 Jul 2014 09:16

    @ashleyjr Perhaps you should read this:

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/air-pollution-has-been-a-problem-since-the-days-of-ancient-rome-3950678/

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