Earth's atmosphere as a global sensor

February 17, 2020 //By Rich Pell
Earth's atmosphere as a global sensor
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced the Atmosphere as a Sensor (AtmoSense) program, which is designed to determine if the Earth's atmosphere can be used as a global sensor.

The AtmoSense program is based on the fact that energy propagates from the Earth's surface to the ionosphere, but in a way that is not yet understood enough to be able to use the atmosphere as a sensor. The new program, says the agency, is a fundamental science program that seeks to understand the propagation of mechanical and electromagnetic energy from the surface of the Earth through the Earth's ionosphere due to transient events such as meteorological sources, geophysical sources, prompt hazards, and others.

"No physical sensor or aggregation of electronic sensors, can continuously and globally detect disturbances that take place on or above the earth’s surface," says the agency. "But the physical atmosphere itself may offer such a sensing capability, if it can be understood and tapped into."

Events like thunderstorms, tornadoes, volcanos, and tsunamis make big "three-dimensional wakes" that propagate to the upper reaches of the ionosphere and leave a mark there. Since that energy traverses several other layers of atmosphere – the troposphere, stratosphere, and mesosphere – on its way up to the ionosphere, says the agency, the idea is to try and identify the disturbances the “wake” is making along its way to see if researchers can capture information to indicate what type of event caused it.

"Maybe I don’t have to directly observe events like an earthquake or tsunami," says Air Force Major C. David Lewis, AtmoSense program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. "Perhaps I can learn what occurred from information in the atmosphere. I want to find out how much information is available, and if I can disaggregate the signal I’m interested in from other natural phenomena creating noise in the background."

The AtmoSense program is seeking proposers from the atmospheric science community, who have extensive experience in atmospheric modeling and simulation. Also of interest are experts offering very unique ways to measure atmospheric properties, such as the basic gas law variables –

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