Climate lab in a container on the high seas

From the Brookhaven National Laboratory: Yearlong MAGIC Climate Study Launches

Climate instruments mounted aboard the Horizon Spirit container ship begin taking data

Horizon <em>Spirit</em>

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. The Horizon Spirit makes the round trip between Los Angeles and Hawaii every two weeks.

UPTON, NY — A Horizon Lines container ship outfitted with meteorological and atmospheric instruments installed by U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) scientists from Argonne National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory will begin taking data today for a yearlong mission aimed at improving the representation of clouds in climate models. The study, a collaborative effort between DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program Climate Research Facility and Horizon Lines, marks the first official marine deployment of the second ARM Mobile Facility, AMF2, and is likely the most elaborate climate study ever mounted aboard a commercial vessel.

Ernie Lewis

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. Brookhaven scientist Ernie Lewis and one of the mobile SeaTainer units now installed aboard the Horizon Spirit, a 272-meter cargo ship that will take atmospheric measurements during a yearlong cloud/climate study.

“We are very grateful to Horizon Lines for giving us the opportunity to install our research equipment aboard the Horizon Spirit,” said lead investigator Ernie Lewis, an atmospheric scientist at DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. The Horizon Spirit makes a roundtrip journey from Los Angeles to Hawaii every two weeks, which allows for repeated measurements over the same transect at different seasons.

“Collecting data on a wide range of atmospheric conditions over an entire year, including the transitions among cloud types along this particular route, will give us a large amount of data to help refine and validate models of Earth’s climate,” Lewis said.

The project—dubbed MAGIC, for the Marine ARM GPCI Investigation of Clouds, where GPCI is a project comparing results from the major climate models—will take place through September 2013.

radar unit being installed

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. A radar unit being installed on Horizon Spirit.

“We are excited to deploy the AMF2 sensors and the infrastructure that supports them on the Horizon Spirit. This represents the culmination of four years of hard work in designing, building and preparing to deploy aboard an ocean going vessel,” said AMF2 Technical Operations Manager Michael Ritsche, an atmospheric scientist at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Clouds and climate

Low marine boundary layer clouds over the ocean exert a large influence on Earth’s climate through reflection of sunlight and by mediating interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean, Lewis explained. However, global climate models have difficulty accurately representing these clouds and the transitions among their different types. Extensive data collection from a marine environment with variable cloud cover could significantly improve these models.

Horizon <em>Spirit</em>’s route

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. Horizon Spirit’s route from Los Angeles to Hawaii (dashed line) lies adjacent to the GPCI transect that is used to compare climate models (solid line), which also contains specific locations used for other modeling efforts (labeled points). The color scale representing the annual average percentage of low-level cloud cover over the region shows that the route is ideal for assessing the effects of changing cloud conditions.

Horizon Spirit’s route crosses just such a region, making it ideal for assessing the effects of changing cloud conditions. This region is important to a wide range of climate models included in the GPCI project.

“Horizon Spirit’s route from Los Angeles to Honolulu lies almost on top of the GPCI line, providing a great opportunity for extensive data collection,” said Lewis. “We approached Horizon about working together on this project with the idea that our equipment could be installed on the ship with no disruption of their ordinary operations.”

“Horizon Lines is happy to cooperate in the year-long MAGIC project to improve climate modeling,” said Pete Strohla, Vice President of Operating Services at Horizon Lines. “Our hope is that better understanding of climate change will facilitate more accurate weather forecasting, which in turn will help our industry plan safer and more fuel-efficient vessel routes.”

ARM Mobile Facility

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. One of the SeaTainer units of the ARM Mobile Facility 2 “touches down” aboard the Horizon Spirit.

A group from Argonne in charge of the deployment has spent the past nine months preparing the instruments and optimizing their performance for shipboard data collection. Many instruments, including an aerosol observing system developed by Brookhaven scientists, are housed in three modified 20-foot SeaTainer cargo containers designed for mobile deployment. Other instruments include radars that are mounted to tables designed to maintain stable “vision” despite the inherent rolling of the ship’s deck as it plies the waves. All of these instruments were installed aboard the Horizon Spirit while it was in port in Los Angeles in September, with final preparations made while en route to Hawaii and back.

“Altogether, the AMF2 comprises a suite of instruments to measure properties of clouds and precipitation, aerosols, and infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light, as well as meteorological and oceanographic conditions,” Lewis said. “These ship-based measurements can provide much more detailed information than can be determined from satellites, and these data will prove a valuable addition to other measurements that have been made in marine conditions, albeit for much shorter periods, for many of these quantities.”

The science team—which includes researchers from DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in addition to Brookhaven, as well as collaborators from NASA, Stony Brook University, and a range of other universities and private consultants—is anxiously anticipating the data that will arise from this endeavor.

“In the end, these data will greatly enhance our understanding of clouds, aerosols, Earth’s energy and water balance, and the interactions among them in the marine environment, providing an unequalled dataset for evaluating and improving climate models,” said Lewis. “Our data, which will be placed in the ARM Data Archive, will be made available to anyone who is interested.”

MAGIC is funded by the DOE Office of Science.

DOE’s 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, please visit


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William McClenney

Da “La Nada”……………………

Sounds like a good idea. Hopefully the project will go well and they will be able to bring back some good data. Seems like this kind of cooperative effort could be done a lot more.

Lance Wallace

Always good to have measurements rather than models. But what fraction of the global surface area will be covered by the L.A.-Hawaii track? Wouldn’t we need 20 or 50 of these at all latitudes operating for 30 years or so to get an idea of how the clouds work?


This data will be INSANELY INCONVENIENT… The “Team” has invented tons and tons of unsupported BS about clouds. Any actual empirical measurements of clouds are therefore a denialist conspiracy and must be debunkified and contained.

Steve (Paris)

So the science isn’t settled and the models aren’t perfect? Who would have guessed.


Oh Dear, Not This.
Our tax dollars fling out the White House windows yet again.
Talk about ‘Bad Siting!’ Why don’t NOAA just out-fit a 18-wheeler to criss-cross the Contiguous US on I80 for pennies that this thing will cost and the data derived will be just as bad … i.e. laughable and ludicrous.
I80 would be much more entertaining with the likes of ‘Pork-Chop Express’ Truck Driver Jack Burton to slay the “Chang Sing” and the “Wing Kong.” Mobs of Feng Shui style in S.F. and the Snake Heads in N.Y. and their Sorcery Leader, Hai Pan who is brother to Lo Pan of the Wing Kong, in a climatic battle of blood, bones and brawn splattered across the silver screen, not to mention horrendously bad writing as the Coup de Gras.

Some fun with numbers. From the weather network. Vancouver monthly record snowfall set in Oct 31, 1984. Please explain why it took until 1984 to discover there was no snowfall in Oct? The other months set the record for zero back in 1926. This tells us that snowfall was negative before that time.
Single day record snowfall (cm)
0 May 01 1926
0 Jun 01 1926
0 Jul 01 1926
0 Aug 01 1926
0 Sep 01 1926
0 Oct 31 1984

I keep hearing that Vancouver is seeing global warming. Yet the statistics say otherwise. If anything, the climate in Vancouver is slightly cooler today than 25 years ago.

Rob Dawg

Hopefully the orientation and cruise speed and prevailing wind direction and speed datums collected will be sufficient to subtract out the great big hunking dirty diesels right there in the ship.


It’s good that they are doing proper research. It’s good that they are trying to find out more about clouds, aerosols, etc. There is a lot to like about it. I would like it more if it covered a larger area, if I knew that all of the readings, unadjusted, would be made freely and publicly available, and if I felt that interpretation of the data would be reasonable. If they keep the data hidden and say they have found effects which can’t be explained by any known natural factors and therefore must be caused by CO2 then yet more public money has been wasted.
Anthony, and others with some clout, please can you contact them and politely but firmly ask them to guarantee to make all unadjusted data available freely, publicly and quickly. And also to consult scientists outside the climate mainstream before reaching any conclusions.

anyone want to bet we find out the sea container was parked next to a huge air conditioner heat exchanger vent? Maybe several thousand feet of airport runway exhaust plumes? A couple of hundred hectares of urban heat island?
… jus’ sayin :

stephen richards

Why is it in the USA, that every man and his dog in government employ seems to be doing climate research?


I will be interested to see how they deal with heat island if they are measuring temperatures.
When I served on a weather reporting cargo ship, I tried the experiment of moving the stevenson screen from the weather side of the bridge to the lee side on a sunny afternoon. Although the screen was still in the wind, the temperature reading went up a bit because the steelwork was hot, and the wind was passing over it on the way to the screen.
Also, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s there was a fleet of weather observing ships keeping continuous station in the North Atlantic. That data must still be available.
The new equipment for measuring low clouds may bring new data but most of the other stuff surely should be available via satellite.
I note that the containers are located on the after accommodation just between the lifeboat and the funnel, sheltered from the weather by the funnel and the cargo. I wonder where all the data collecting sensors are: I can see lots of spurious readings of particulates when a generator injector in the engine room fails and the funnel starts putting out just a little more soot.
But surely they will have thought of these practical problems.
I agree that they should be asked for the raw data to be made freely and timeously available to anyone who asks for it.

180 years ago similar project led to one of the greatest revolutions in the science.
I hope they have two systems running in parallel , so that the data from one can be corroborated by the other.
It may be wondered why Darwin did not use one notebook until it was full, rather than keep switching between notebooks. We believe that the main reason he kept switching was that for document security he would only take one notebook onshore, so once he was back on board after an excursion he would start to use the notebook just used as the basis for his various diaries and specimen lists

Adam Gallon

The amazing bit, is that it’s taken until now for this type of basic research to be commissioned! Why? Is it because there are no satellites involved, so it’s not “Sexy Science”?
Maybe now there is money available for basic research, somebody may like to put in a proposal to resample a few trees (Cough, Gav, cough? Making sure there’s a few dollars left over for the Starbucks, of course!


An attempt to validate climate models with actual measurement. Nice! I just hope they don’t try to adjust away any inconvenient readings.

Dodgy Geezer

“…scientists from Argonne National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory will begin taking data today for a yearlong mission aimed at improving the representation of clouds in climate models….”
If Mann has anything to do with this experiment, expect the cloud detection sensor to be situated just behind the ship’s funnel…..

It’s about time that clouds were studied but will the results suit the alarmists or the sceptics?

Geoff Sherrington

What a good opportunity to compare bucket temperatures with engine intakes. It’s been decades since the uncertainty was recognised.

Am I the only one that thinks it doesn’t make good sense to be using a moving vessel on an ocean that’s also moving (up and down) to monitor anything in the sky?

Steve (Paris) says:
October 1, 2012 at 10:39 pm
So the science isn’t settled and the models aren’t perfect? Who would have guessed.
What Steve said. This is as big an admission that there could be that they have been blowing smoke up…[snip]

Kelvin Vaughan

I hope they remeber to account for maritime heat island effect.


What a good idea! Much more efficient use of taxpayer money than running a dedicated research vessel back and forth. Lots of other routes could be used for data collecting too. Container ships these days run on tightly set schedules and routes, so the data will be comparable from one year to the next.

Martin A

This is surely less useful than the cost of doing it, since the ship progresses too slowly to demonstrate a distinction between a change in cloud in different areas, and a difference due to the clouds moving between different areas. On an unlucky crossing, it could even be like Pooh Bear’s friend Eeyore, who lived perpetually under a rain cloud, which followed him.
I get that the ship is nice and big, so can carry a lot of heavy equipment cheaply, but surely this is better mounted on faster moving planes?

To do it properly you need solar powered platforms equally space through out the globe where every Line of Longitude intersects every line Lattitude.Unfortunately Pirates will be stealing them for scrap
This survey ship going anywhere near Somalia.
Also needs to be a Sail ship to avoid interference from its Engines Heat and Exhaust.
And it can only monitor in Calm seas where the weather patterns are stable
Just use infra red satellites Cheaper and they are already up there.

ferdberple says:
October 1, 2012 at 10:46 pm
> Some fun with numbers. From the weather network. Vancouver monthly record snowfall set in Oct 31, 1984.
Please don’t hijack a post’s discussion with off topic information early in its life, and please make it clear that you are doing so. I suspect a number of non-North Americans don’t realize that Vancouver is nowhere near the Hawaii to Los Angeles shipping corridor.
Your comments would have been fine on the next Open Thread.

Lance Wallace says:
October 1, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Always good to have measurements rather than models. But what fraction of the global surface area will be covered by the L.A.-Hawaii track? Wouldn’t we need 20 or 50 of these at all latitudes operating for 30 years or so to get an idea of how the clouds work?

The 30 year metric is generally used to log climate as it changes, a very different process than learning about how weather systems behave. There are cyclic processes to be studied at several periods. Are you suggesting this project be abandoned because it’s not looking at a 200 year solar cycle?
A number of processes that affect clouds behave the same around the world, a number are fairly local. The post makes it clear that this transect is already being studied by satellite and models, so it’s quite sensible that detailed local information be collected for ground truth if nothing else. Sure, a broader network would be nice, but this seems like a good starting point to me and data collected here could provide good guidance for similar efforts elsewhere.
This also seems like a very good transect to study given the change in low level cloudiness along its length. Note also that low level cloudiness in eastern ocean basins are the areas of most interest in Svenmark’s hypothesis so this data should be extremely interesting to folks studying that.

Robert of Ottawa

ferdberple, you aren’t aware of the traditional Thanksgiving Snow Festival in Vancouver? 1984 was the first year in living memory that it had to be cancelled.
Seriously, although this experiment seems massively expensive, and it is only a sample of one, the idea is good. Maybe if they could make it less expensive and equip many more ships …


There may well be a worse method to gather “meteorological and atmospheric” measurements from the open ocean than this. But I honestly can’t think of what that method might be.


“Collecting data on a wide range of atmospheric conditions over an entire year, including the transitions among cloud types along this particular route, will give us a large amount of data to help refine and validate models of Earth’s climate,” Lewis said.

Shouldn’t they have done this BEFORE making all those scary predictions?


“…a yearlong mission aimed at improving the representation of clouds in climate models.”
Since they currently have no idea how to represent clouds in their Playstation simulations, I suppose any addition of knowledge is an improvement. Unless, of course, that new knowledge raises more questions than answers — always a possibility.


Back when I was a radio operator at sea (1978-1984) it was a daily practice to send OBS reports (weather observations) from every vessel in the (BP Shipping) fleet and many other companies did the same. Wasn’t THAT information of any use? The system is AFAIK still in operation.


From 21° N to 34° N – that’s isn’t much latitude. They WILL miss a lot!


Anybody see mention of a neutron counter or other particle detector? I may have missed it. They did provide a state-of-the art aerosol instrument.

This is a good thing. We don’t fully understand the complexity of cloud effects on weather, much less climate. It is a cheaper way than operating dedicated research vessels. However, it will not provide much of the data that is needed to develope a good three dimensional model. They now need to contract with a airline that regularly travels the same route, faster and more often. I strongly suspect that clouds are controlling both the concentration and distribution of CO2. I think that such a three dimensional study would give us some answers.


Like other’s: I have immediate doubts about a container mounted sensors somewhere close to a very large diesel engine (or Steam, from the design that’s an older ship but I might be wrong, intra US trade tends to use smaller older ships as it’s gruesomely un-economical to build large commercial ships in the US) but one hopes the scientists and engineers involved have thought about it.

Sounds like a fascinating experiment. Where on the ship are the experiment’s containers located? How do they prevent them from being accidentally offloaded? Are they self-contained or are they drawing ship’s power? I still have a lot of questions, but it sounds very interesting. I hope something useful comes out of it and something similar can be done with other container ships on other routes around the world.


The ship in the picture above is not the “Horizon Spirit”. It looks like the “Horizon Producer” or her sister the “Horizon Consumer”. The “Spirit” is of another design and 50m longer.

John Trigge (in Oz)

Can’t clouds be studied better by satellites? Clouds between Hawaii and CA must show up better on satellite views than a ship going back and forth.

Great – an L.A.-Hawaii track.
Stopovers in Hawaii while the ship loads and unloads. Scientists need to travel with the equipment, just to make sure there are no problems.
I’m sure the schedule’s already been decided – kinda like a time-share.