SALT LAKE CITY — Fog is a weather phenomenon that's intrigued scientists for centuries.
While there are plenty of extensive studies about how various kinds of fog are formed, there really isn't a whole lot that helps meteorologists and other researchers predict when or where fog will form. That's especially true in high-elevation areas, where fog is as frequent as over water bodies but where its science is less known.
Zhaoxia Pu, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, said that's because it's "very localized" and therefore meteorological equipment can't really capture it. In addition, there's a lack of understanding regarding the formation of fog and also its dissipation.
"Most of the forecasts now rely on the numeric weather predictions," she said, explaining that it's a computer model that predicts the probability of fog based on other conditions.
But that also means that the input into the computer model has to be accurate.
The predictability knowledge gap in mountainous terrain is something that Pu and another University of Utah professor hope to figure out over the course of the next few years with their project "Cold Fog Amongst Complex Terrain." The National Science Foundation last month awarded Pu and Eric Pardyjak, a professor of mechanical engineering, a little more than $1.17 million for a study they will lead that aims to close a major knowledge gap in fog.
Beginning in June and continuing into 2024, they and a team of other researchers will seek to figure out a system that can better predict fog and capture the most elusive aspect of fog. If so, it could have major implications, especially for air travel.
Speaking with KSL.com on Thursday, Pu explained that the team that she and Pardyjak are set to oversee will use observations and computer modeling to create data simulation. The observations will be conducted in Utah's Heber Valley region at the start of 2022.
These observations will go against computer projections for fog to see how accurate their forecast was and to see how they can make their project program better.
"Our ultimate goal is to try and improve the computer model and the method better to predict the fog and also we'll computer model with observation to create more accurate analysis and also that makes more accurate initial condition, which is input for the computer model," she explained.
They selected Heber Valley because it offered researchers a mountain-valley location with the perfect size for lab conditions, including different types of fog. That's because the valley is mostly flat and surrounded by mountains and two reservoirs.
They believe that the location serves as a stand in for many places around the globe with similar landscapes.
Any improvement to that model would be welcomed, especially in the world of aviation. University of Utah officials noted that fog was second behind wind in weather-related causes for aircraft crashes globally.
Perhaps no fog-related crash was more publicized than the one last year that killed nine in California, including basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna.
Pu called fog "high-impact weather," in that its existence factors in the lives of many people. It's a key reason why this study was needed.
"An accurate weather prediction will provide information (for) a public warning and a public warning," she said, adding that will in turn lead to better preparation and improve safety, especially in the air.
The group Environment and Climate Change Canada is among the colleagues brought in to assist in the study. Scientists from the organization will watch a network of sensors on the ground across the Heber Valley and satellite data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research next winter, according to the University of Utah.