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Perry receives $494,000 NSF grant to study precipitation in the Andes Mountains

Watauga County teachers and Grandfather Mountain naturalists will assist in the research

BOONE—Baker Perry has been studying precipitation and climate change in the Andes for more than 15 years – even longer if you consider the time he spent as the child of rural health workers in Bolivia and Peru.

View larger imageBaker Perry, left, shows Alpaca farmer Don Pedro Godfredo how to take precipitation measurements from his farm, located at an elevation of 16,700 feet near Peru’s Quelccaya Ice Cap. Perry, an assistant professor of geography at Appalachian State University, has received a five-year National Science Foundation grant to expand his research of precipitation and climate change in the Andes Mountains in Peru and Bolivia. (Photo by Dr. Anton Seimon)

Perry is an assistant professor of geography in Appalachian State University’s Department of Geography and Planning. His research in those regions will be bolstered by a five-year, $494,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

He will study the meteorology and climatology of precipitation in the Andes Mountains and install new monitoring stations at the Quelccaya Ice Cap located outside Cusco, Peru, and Chacaltaya, a mountain peak some 20 miles outside La Paz, Bolivia, at the site of a glacier that disappeared in 2009.

“I grew up in some of these areas and that really instilled a curiosity and fascination as to what was happening in the mountains and the broader significance related to water resources, human health and societal impacts,” Perry said.

“There are a number of important research questions in the Andes that relate to precipitation and snowfall,” he said. “One of the topics I’ll be looking at has to do with where the moisture is coming from during precipitation events and when the precipitation occurs. This grant provides the resources and the time to build on research my colleagues and I have been involved with over the past few years.”

Perry said very little research has been done in the Andes on the timing of precipitation events – daytime vs. nighttime. “The conventional understanding has been that precipitation is delivered by convective lifting, like the afternoon showers we get here in the North Carolina mountains in the summer.

“Some of our initial results suggest that the larger fraction of precipitation in the region may be the result of longer duration but less intense precipitation events occurring at night,” he said. “That has pretty important implications as to how we understand and characterize the basic climatology of precipitation delivery in the Andes.”

He also will look at how El Niño and La Niña and the region’s topography influence precipitation amounts, intensity and timing. The information collected may also help Perry and other scientists better understand some 2,000 years of data collected from recent ice cores from Quelccaya and other mountains in the region.

“If we can better understand the current meteorology and the way precipitation is delivered in the modern climate, that should help us to decode and better interpret the climate signals preserved in ice cores,” Perry said.

Because there has been little research on the timing, intensity and type of precipitation such as rain vs. snow, part of the grant has been used to purchase a comprehensive precipitation monitoring station that Perry will install on the Quelccaya Icecap at 18,630 feet later this summer. Similar equipment will be installed on Chacaltaya at 17,200 feet.

Weather balloons also will be launched during precipitation events in targeted intensive observation periods to obtain data on temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed and direction from the upper atmosphere. In addition, Perry will train local residents living above 13,000 feet in Peru and Bolivia where observations are not currently available to make precipitation observations as citizen scientists.

Perry also will relocate a vertical-pointing Micro Rain Radar from its current location in Avery County, along the North Carolina and Tennessee border, to Peru for two years and then to Bolivia. The radar will provide continuous information on the altitudes at which precipitation forms in the cloud layer and where snow changes to rain.

Collaborators on the project include scientists from the University of Massachusetts, N.C. State University and the University of Maine, the North Carolina Appalachian Collaborative for Higher Education, faculty from the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio de Abád de Cusco in Peru and the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in Bolivia, and scientists from the national meteorology and hydrology institutes in both countries.

Perry will take a Watauga County teacher and an employee from Grandfather Mountain in the first, third and fifth years of his grant to assist with his work in South America. Undergraduate and graduate students also will assist in the field work and research.

Darcy Grimes, the 2012-13 N.C. Teacher of the Year and an instructional technology facilitator at Bethel and Mabel elementary schools in Watauga County, and Jesse Pope from Grandfather Mountain, will be the first to travel with Perry to Peru for two weeks in July. In addition, Appalachian students will accompany Perry through a study abroad program in July and in future years.

Grimes will develop activities for K-12 students and teachers that tie into Perry’s research and the region based on her experiences there. Pope will use the experience to add an international component to Grandfather Mountain’s existing climate science exhibit.

A variety of programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) have contributed funds for this grant: Geography and Spatial Science, Climate and Large Scale Dynamics, and Physical and Dynamic Meteorology. Additionally, funding was received from the NSF Global Venture Fund within the Office of International Science and Engineering.

Perry will remain in South America through November conducting grant-related activities.

“Millions of people in the Andes directly depend on the melt water from the glaciers in the region, which are retreating,” Perry said. “If we can better understand the precipitation-climate-glacier interactions, that will be an important step in planning ahead for future water resources. I am very blessed and excited to have the opportunity to conduct this research and also involve Appalachian students, local educators and Andean citizen scientists.”