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Remote Sensing of Clouds


I had my first close contact with the atmosphere and atmospheric sciences when, at the age of 17, I began soaring past the clouds in a glider. The immediate experience of atmospheric forces and resulting movements fascinated me, as was the opportunity for relatively close observations of cloud formations. The desire to learn more about Earth's protective cover was born.

In the early '90s when I had to choose a profession, I got to know--by conversations with the German Weather Service and a job center--that the job situation for meteorologists was very bad, much to my regret. Therefore I studied physics in Hamburg, but changed to meteorology as my main course after 2 years.

On the one hand, I realized that I had no deeper interest in the kind of theoretical physics that is the main part of study in Hamburg, on the other hand, the prospect for physicists became similarly bad. As in "true" physics, the meteorology study in Hamburg (and other German universities) consists mainly of mathematics and physics, while synoptical meteorology (i.e., what we call weather forecast) has only minor priority. Today, I think to study meteorology was the best decision I have ever made--processes in the atmosphere intrigue me more than ever.

After finishing my degree, I became a Ph.D. student at the GKSS Research Centre, Institute for Atmospheric Physics, and I am likely to finish my dissertation at the end of this year. The GKSS's main research topics are diverse activities in environmental research, including materials research, membrane technology, and water and climate in coastal environments. The latter one is the main goal of the Institute for Atmospheric Physics that will merge into the Institute for Coastal Research (which has just been founded) in the beginning of 2002.

The institute works on the water and energy circuits with a focus on the Baltic Sea area. This contains developing of (mostly regional) models of processes both in the atmosphere and at the surface. Simulating the flood of the Oder River in 1997 was one of the big challenges and a good test if the water run-off had been correctly implemented in the model. The "atmospheric part" deals mainly with clouds, treating three approaches. These are airborne in situ measurements, ground-based radar measurements, and remote sensing from satellites, which is also my own field of work. GKSS carries on a 95-GHz cloud radar that is often used during international field campaigns. Furthermore, we prosecute receiving stations for both the geostationary Meteosat and the polar orbiting NOAA AVHRR satellites, presenting these images on the World Wide Web.

My own studies are based on the new Meteosat system that will be launched for the first time in 2002. Meteosat Second Generation (MSG) will allow us to monitor large areas of the Earth-atmosphere system with a unique temporal and spatial resolution. We will get not only narrowband information in 12 channels (compared with three channels at the current Meteosat system and five channels at the GOES), but also, simultaneously, Earth's radiation budget each 15 minutes. My task is to derive profiles of radiation divergence, which will cause regions of atmospheric heating and cooling, from MSG measurements. Radiation divergence, which is an important reason for dynamical forcing, is dominated by the cloud distribution in the atmosphere. Therefore, one of the largest jobs was to create a data set containing both the radiation divergence profiles and the radiation that will be measured from MSG for several cloud scenes and atmospheric states. For that, I had to modify and use some existing radiative transfer models. This data set must be evaluated now.

Everyday life also contains servicing of the existing software for the satellite receiving stations and other operational software. The problem of the greenhouse effect is being handled at the institute as well, and regularly I am asked to make some radiative transfer calculations for colleagues to get results for comparison. Most of the time is spent in front of the computer terminal, generating and appraising synthetic data. But it is very exiting to find your own calculations in measurements done by colleagues around the world. In addition, I am preparing myself for the new job I will start next year in the radar group, and I'm looking forward to going back into the "real" atmosphere, beholding real clouds again. At the moment, I'm spending much of my time reading papers about cloud microphysics, nonhomogeneities in clouds, radiative properties of clouds and aerosols, and related things. The time straight before writing the dissertation is really hard. ...

Future for meteorologists in Germany seems to be conflicting, first of all in state-run research. The state has to economize, therefore the number of existing permanent appointments has to be reduced and new ones are very rare at the moment. That may (hopefully) change in a few years when many older colleagues will retire. On the other hand, meteorologists have a wide-ranging knowledge after the study, especially about computer handling and physics in general, so there are many possibilities to change into private enterprise. And also in state-run institutions it is easy to get a nonpermanent job at the moment--although there is a decreasing number of jobs, the number of candidates is decreasing faster.

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