WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Over the last 50 years, scientists have studied all sorts of things in Antarctica, but they haven't trained their instruments on the clouds.
That's finally changing thanks to the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement West Antarctic Radiation Experiment, a research project buoyed by $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The research mission, dubbed AWARE, began in November of last year and will continue through 2017. Researchers are using sophisticated radar instruments to study the chemical composition and structure of Antarctic clouds. They will collect data on water concentration, particulate distribution, temperature, precipitation and more.
The West Antarctica Ice Sheet is a massive heat sink for Earth's climate, but its ability to absorb heat is affected by cloud cover. Meanwhile, West Antarctica is rapidly warming -- faster than most regions on Earth.
Similar research is ongoing in the Arctic, but until now, scientists have mostly had their attention focused on ice and water on the ground at the South Pole.
"The Antarctic is a very different environment than the Arctic, because it is colder year-round and also has a very pristine atmosphere," Scripps atmospheric scientist Dan Lubin, who is heading the AWARE mission, told Nature.
Lubin and his colleagues hope to improve their ability to model Antarctic climate systems, so to better understand the global effects of a warming Antarctic.
"Global climate model simulations are known to perform poorly over the Antarctic and Southern oceans, and the marked scarcity of cloud information at southern high latitudes has so far inhibited significant progress," researchers explain.
They recently shared preliminary findings in three papers published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.