Atmospheric Research at RMBL

Mountains act as nature’s water towers, providing fresh water for many of the world’s communities and natural systems.  They are also inherently complex environments to predict where and how precipitation forms. This is further challenged in a warming world that disrupts natural cycles and threatens water security for those that rely on this valuable resource.  Overcoming these issues will require a deeper understanding of the key atmospheric processes that operate in mountain environments and how they interact with land and topography to control where, when and how water resources are derived and distributed.   To address this, the Department of Energy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will deploy two major atmospheric observatories in the East River Valley.

SAIL is a two-year atmospheric research campaign funded by the Department of Energy that will answer key questions on the physical processes that control where and how precipitation forms across mountain watersheds.  SAIL, or the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory, consists of a mobile Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) observatory with dozens of instruments that measure precipitation, clouds, aerosols, winds, radiative energy, temperature, and humidity.  Gothic will host the bulk of the observatory and act as a base of operations for technicians that maintain the instruments from September of 2021 through June of 2023.

SPLASH, which stands for The Study of Precipitation, Lower Atmosphere and Surface Hydrometeorology, is a one-year project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study environmental parameters connected to weather and water over mountainous terrain.  The project will deploy a broad array of instruments at several sites in the Valley that will measure atmospheric and surface properties like temperature, winds, humidity, precipitation, clouds, turbulence, snow cover, soil moisture, snow reflectivity and more.  Together, these observations will be used to develop and evaluate modeling tools to improve national weather and water prediction capabilities in mountainous areas.  The SPLASH campaign is envisioned to take place between fall of 2021 and summer of 2022.

These atmospheric projects will complement ongoing water research in the area led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (SFA) project.  The Watershed Function SFA is focused on understanding how water flows through mountainous regions in response to changing climate, land use and extreme weather events. The confluence of these related research projects creates one of the world’s most integrated field laboratories for water research in a mountain environment with far-reaching impacts.  It will generate new insights and approaches to understanding the timing and availability of water resources in the East River Valley and constrain climate prediction models in similar environments around the world to better predict the impacts of drought and climate change which threaten this valuable resource.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is SAIL and who runs it?

SAIL stands for the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory. It is a field campaign that will bring a mobile atmospheric observatory with dozens of instruments to the East River Watershed. The observatory is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility. The Department of Energy funds and oversees one of the largest research systems in the world consisting of seventeen national labs, of which eight are involved in SAIL. In addition to the national labs, the SAIL field campaign will involve scientists from a range of other government, research, and academic institutions around the country. More information can be found at the following website About – SAIL (

What are the science objectives for the deployment in the East River Watershed?

The main science goal of SAIL is to develop a quantitative understanding of the atmosphere and land-atmosphere interaction processes, at their relevant scales, that affect mountain hydrology in the midlatitude continental interior of the United States. SAIL measurements will pursue the following science objectives:

  • Characterize the spatial distribution of orographic and convective precipitation processes on diurnal to seasonal timescales and how those processes interact with large-scale circulation.
  • Quantify cold-season land-atmosphere interactions that alter snowpack mass balance through wind redistribution and sublimation and the spatial scaling of those processes.
  • Establish aerosol regimes and the processes controlling the life cycle of aerosols in those regimes and quantify the impacts of aerosols in those regimes on the atmospheric and surface radiative budget.
  • Quantify the sensitivity of cloud phase and precipitation to cloud condensation nuclei and ice-nucleating particle concentrations.
  • Quantify the seasonally varying surface energy balance, the land-surface and atmospheric factors controlling it, and the spatial variability in those factors.


By measuring the inputs to, outputs from, and processes within the East River Watershed, SAIL will produce a benchmark data set for atmospheric and surface process representation studies. Those studies, in turn, will be used to build a strong foundation for models that can better predict threats to water resources in the American West.  DOE/SC-ARM-20-016 October 2020 ARM is funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Additional information is available on the ARM website at

Where else has this observatory been deployed?

The observatory is called the second ARM Mobile Facility (AMF2). It is one of three state-of-the-art mobile observatories that have been deployed to collect atmospheric and climate data from around the world (ARM user facility). AMF2’s maiden voyage was to Steamboat Springs in 2010. Since then, it has traveled from Antarctica to the Maldives and many places in between. Prior to coming to Crested Butte, AMF2 was located on a ship collecting data in the central Arctic Ocean for a year.

Why here and why now?

RMBL’s scientists have made the Gunnison Basin one of the best-known ecosystems in the world. This body of long-term research provides the ideal opportunity to investigate the complex interactions between the atmosphere and environment. In addition, the East River is an important part of the Upper Colorado River Basin, which provides water resources to 10% of the U.S. population. Improving our understanding of water availability high in the mountains of Colorado has far-reaching societal benefits to those that rely on this resource along this important drainage basin.

What is the relationship between RMBL and this field campaign?

RMBL will be hosting the field campaign, known as SAIL, including assisting with permitting, hosting some of the sensors on RMBL property, and providing logistical support. There will be technicians living year-round at RMBL. SAIL has been reviewed by RMBL’s Research Committee, which evaluates the scientific value of this study, assesses environmental impacts of projects, and identifies potential conflicts with ongoing research.

How will SAIL technicians go in and out of Gothic in winter?

We will be coordinating winter snowmobile trips to support the campaign with grooming of the Gothic track as much as possible, to minimize any increase in motorized traffic. To support SAIL, RMBL does not anticipate using the weekly snowmobile trips, for which it is approved (and we are not requesting additional motorized access). If RMBL does need to bring in a snowmobile, we will do it after midday to minimize conflicts with nonmotorized recreation.

How will this benefit existing research in the valley?

The SAIL campaign will complement ongoing research in the area led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (SFA) project, funded through the Department of Energy’s Environmental System Science (ESS) program. The Watershed Function SFA project was established in 2016 and is focused on understanding how water flows through mountainous regions in response to changing climate, land use and extreme weather events. SAIL will collect valuable information on how water is delivered to the watershed in the form of rain and snow. This provides a unique opportunity for atmospheric scientists to collaborate with geologists, hydrologists and other scientists working within the same watershed to develop an integrated view of how precipitation moves from the atmosphere through the bedrock and into our mountain drainages.

Will this attract other research projects to the area?

The SAIL deployment has provided a catalyst for atmospheric research in the valley. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will deploy a variety of instruments at several sites near and down valley from the SAIL installation. In addition, researchers from a range of academic institutions are planning small-scale deployments within the same timeframe.

What does the observatory look like?

The observatory consists of several portable shipping containers that house instruments, communications, power, and data systems. Individual instruments are also distributed around the containers and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from small probes and cameras to larger towers and radars. The pictures below show some of the instruments and configurations from previous deployments.

Pictures of Observatory

Where will the instruments be located?

Most of the instruments will be located along the edge of the Gothic townsite in the East River Valley. There may also be a few instruments on Mount Crested Butte just above the Red Lady and Teocalli lift area, pending evaluation by the ski resort and USFS.

How long will the observatory be in the valley?

The observatory will be in the valley for two years. Installation will begin during the summer of 2021, and the instruments will record data from the fall of 2021 through the summer of 2023. When the field campaign is finished, all the instruments will be removed, and the sites restored to their native state.

How many instruments and what are they measuring?

Approximately 50 instruments will be deployed with the observatory. They will measure precipitation, clouds, aerosols, winds, radiative energy, temperature, and humidity from the ground surface to thousands of feet into the atmosphere. Some of the instruments will measure microscopic particles, and others will measure areas that span tens of miles.

What is the budget for the project?

The budget for deploying and operating the ARM mobile facility for the two-year deployment is $8 million.  However, because the project involves a lot of collaborations, the total project cost is likely to be larger after the collaborations are accounted for.

How will this information be used?

Mountains act as nature’s water towers, providing freshwater for many of the world’s communities and natural systems. This research will generate new insights and approaches to understanding the timing and availability of water resources in the East River drainage. It will also be used to constrain climate prediction models in similar environments around the world to better predict the impacts of drought and climate change, which threaten this valuable resource.

Will the data improve real-time weather predictions and snow forecasts?

Most of the instruments will collect data that require further analysis to inform longer-term trends and predictive models. That said, some of the instruments such as the X-band radar and weather balloons provide direct measurements of temperature, precipitation, wind speed and wind direction that can be used to improve local forecasting. This could benefit the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, Crested Butte Mountain Resort and anyone else interested in how the weather may impact their activities in the valley. A link to these data will be provided this fall when the instruments are up and running.

Can I see the SAIL observatory?

We expect to be giving tours around the SAIL observatory once installation activity is complete.  This will likely begin in late summer to early fall of 2021.  These will be based out of the RMBL visitors center (Visitor Center – Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (, which opens in mid-June 2021.

Can I access the data?

The data collected by ARM will be delivered through the Data Discovery website (Data Discovery (

How can I learn more?

For more information about this and other research, you can sign up for our e-newsletter (News & Press – Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory ( or visit our website (Public Programs – Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory ( The ARM user facility will also be sharing updates and blogs on its website and in its newsletter.

How does this research fit with RMBL science strategy?

Scientific discovery is a dynamic process, and the answers to some questions are beyond the scope of individual disciplines. RMBL is very interested in supporting a wide range of scientific disciplines. Much of the historic research at RMBL has been focused on ecology and evolutionary biology. Starting approximately six years ago with the Berkeley Lab’s Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area, RMBL added a significant amount of hydrology and geosciences to its research portfolio. With this project, RMBL is adding atmospheric research.

Through creating a data-rich and interactive environment, RMBL seeks to build on the accumulated knowledge of the Gunnison Basin to create unique scientific opportunities that cross disciplines. This is made possible through sustained research by RMBL scientists across a range of disciplines within the same ecosystem. To learn more about the RMBL strategy, please visit the following link: 2019 RMBL Strategic Plan – Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

Are the instruments dangerous or hazardous?

The instruments pose no danger to people and access to the observatory is restricted to ensure there is no interference with the measurements. The radars transmit very low frequency radio waves that are not dangerous or hazardous.

Are the instruments noisy?

The instruments do not make noise. There are fans and air conditioning units that cool the instruments with noise levels that are limited to a low hum.

What to do if I find a weather balloon?

Weather balloons will be released to provide direct measurements of the temperature and wind speed and direction within the atmosphere. Depending on weather conditions, the balloons will travel from a few miles to many tens of miles from the site before safely returning to the ground. The balloon is made of biodegradable materials and is attached to a small radiosonde, which records atmospheric data. All the material is safe to handle, and a sticker on the radiosonde provides instructions on what to do and where to find additional information if a balloon is found.

Does this campaign change winter travel in the East River Valley?

The SAIL field campaign will not result in any changes to the current policy designating Gothic road as a nonmotorized corridor in the winter. Transport of supplies and staff related to SAIL will be coordinated with the weekly trail grooming activities of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, which operates under a special use permit with the Gunnison Ranger District.

Will it affect elk migrations, marmots and ground squirrels?

No, the instrumentation will not affect animals.


ARM facility: Rolanda Jundt (

SAIL Scientific Contacts: Key scientific contacts: Daniel Feldman (, SAIL Principal Investigator); Ken Williams (, Watershed Function SFA Chief Field Scientist and SAIL Deputy Investigator); Chandra (, SAIL Precipitation Process Sub-Group Lead); Allison Aiken (, SAIL Aerosol Process Sub-Group Lead); Jiwen Fan (, SAIL Aerosol-Precipitation Interactions Lead); Dave Gochis (, SAIL Surface Fluxes Lead)

Local logistics: Erik Hulm (

RMBL and the local community: Ian Billick (

Related publications

SAIL Campaign Backgrounder Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory (

ARM Returning to the Rockies Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility

Lejo Flores to Collaborate on Large-Scale Atmospheric Measurement Project Lejo Flores to collaborate on large-scale atmospheric measurement project – Boise State News

ARM workshop report with additional background on ARM Mobile Facilities Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) User Facility ARM Mobile Facility Workshop Report (

MOSAiC: A Sustained Echo of Data (AMF2 campaign prior to Crested Butte deployment) ARM user facility

Example of a different field campaign utilizing a similar suite of instruments.