Head in the Clouds: A Visit to NCAR

I’m back from my holiday travel adventures – with a bad cold and happy memories. I visited my granddaughter, Ada, in Eau Claire Wisconsin for Christmas and found plenty of ice and snow,  then spent several days with my long-time friend and fellow writer Sara Sheldon in Boulder Colorado.

Sara’s livingroom window offered the view of an intriguing building on a bluff above the city. I studied it at various times of day, the morning light brought a stiff brown look to what appeared to be a stylized version of ancient Native American cliff dwellings, afternoon light cast a rosy glow over what might pass for an ancient fortress.

Finally, I told Sara I wanted to go see what the structure was about. Good friend that she is, Sara didn’t complain when I got my geek on and explored the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Up close, NCAR, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, is a stunningly beautiful building filled with laboratories, offices and public displays explaining the mysteries of the atmosphere that surrounds us. But it’s more than that. It’s a portal to understanding in the grandest sense and I felt lucky to be there on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve—practically alone, the wind howling at nearly 100 mph off the Flatirons.


I.M. Pei

NCAR is part of a global network of scientists piecing together the physical principles that define the behavior of the atmosphere—storms, winds, rain and floods, acid levels in the oceans and climate change. They’re working on the “why”of these problems, but also the answers to “so what?”

 The mission of the institute is to attack the fundamental problems of the atmosphere on a scale equal to its global nature. NCAR is not a weather forecasting center it’s a giant atmospheric think tank affiliated with more than 70 member universities.
It’s a teaching center with its own aircraft and radar, supercomputers and a group of scientists working together to understand atmospheric chemistry, climate, cloud physics and storms, weather hazards to aviation, and interactions between the sun and earth.
 In all of these areas, the NCAR scientists are looking closely at the role of humans in both creating climate change and responding to severe weather occurrences. While studying the public exhibits, I was dismayed to learn that more than 25 percent of the world’s coral reefs are already dead and that coral will be extinct by 2040.

But, I was delighted to learn why the sky is blue and what causes the fierce Chinook winds in the Rockie Mountains. I was glad to see that there are smart people looking at what snow and drought mean in a larger context, that we have a gang of highly skilled weather watchdogs looking deep into the oceans and far out into space to understand the atmosphere we live in.

NCAR is open to the public and exhibits are suitable for children, as well as adults. Outside, when weather permits, there’s a nearly half-mile, self-guided weather trail, with a spur trail that connects to the Boulder Mountain Parks system. The only weather trail in North America, it’s similar to the trail at the Swiss Meteorological Institute in Gstaad.

NCAR’s Web site offers information aimed at school children, the general public and the scientific community at www.ncar.ucar.edu 

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