Science Policy & Funding News

What Will Become of Sweet Briar's Atmospheric Research Station?

In the middle of the college's financial fight stands an atmospheric research tower with an uncertain future.


While faculty members and students of Sweet Briar College scramble to secure their futures elsewhere or fight to keep the institution open, environmental science professor Thomas O’Halloran worries about what will become of the college’s atmospheric research station, which includes an observation tower standing 2 kilometers away from campus within a sprawling loblolly pine forest.

O’Halloran was just minutes away from installing a new instrument onto the tower on the morning of 3 March when officials at Sweet Briar College, a liberal arts college in Virginia, announced that the school would close at the end of the semester.

“I was [in the lab] soldering a connector, one of the last things I had to do before putting it on the tower,” O’Halloran said. “If you go into my lab right now, the thing is sitting there with the soldering iron.”

Now the instrument, which would have measured carbon dioxide fluxes of the forest, rests unattended while O’Halloran searches not only for a new job but also for some way to save the research tower and its accompanying laboratory. Because the tower was purchased partly using a private gift bestowed on the college itself, O’Halloran cannot simply take it with him to his next position.

“What the school is telling me is ‘If you want to take it somewhere, someone’s going to have to buy it,’” O’Halloran said.

Research Dreams

Less than a year ago, in the summer of 2014, O’Halloran and a small team erected the 37-meter-tall tower, which stretches 17 meters above the canopy. They also built a research shed at its base, complete with equipment, electricity, Internet access, and air conditioning. Together, these components form Sweet Briar’s Land-Atmosphere Research Station.

Looking up the 37-meter-tall atmospheric research tower. Credit: Meridith De Avila Khan/Sweet Briar College
Looking up the 37-meter-tall atmospheric research tower. Credit: Meridith De Avila Khan/Sweet Briar College

The tower itself hosts a myriad of instruments, most dedicated to studying the gases that contribute to aerosol formation above the canopy. The rest include devices that measure meteorological features such as air temperature, humidity, incoming and reflected solar radiation, and wind speed and direction. Instruments on the tower also measure precipitation amount, rate, and intensity.

O’Halloran planned to focus on studying air quality and the formation of aerosols, specifically those responsible for a well-known phenomenon that annually blankets the Appalachian Mountains: the Blue Ridge haze.

Scientists know that the haze forms when hydrocarbons released by the canopy are oxidized in the air, which turns them into tiny particles that scatter blue light. The effect can be strengthened by chemicals emitted by upwind coal-burning power plants but occurs naturally even without air pollution. With the research tower and facility, O’Halloran intended to investigate how this haze relates to a documented cooling effect seen in the southeastern United States.

The newest device would have made the tower an AmeriFlux site—one of more than a hundred dotted across the country, making up a network of atmospheric research stations that study energy fluxes, carbon dioxide storage, and water vapor around North and South America. The tower also holds a PhenoCam, a camera designed to observe the greenness of the canopy, part of a national phenology research network studying the timing of ecological changes.

O’Halloran also had collaborations planned within and outside the Sweet Briar community, including allowing the biology department to install sticky traps on the tower to collect insect specimens, working with forestry scientists to study the surrounding pine forest, and collaborating with scientists at nearby schools to provide data for other studies.

“His site was such a great opportunity because the infrastructure was already established,” said Quinn Thomas, an ecology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who was going to use the research tower to study carbon cycling.

Other research towers exist in the region—one at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a set at Duke University in North Carolina—but these facilities are farther away and do not typically offer the same kinds of opportunities to undergraduate students as the facility at Sweet Briar, which is a much smaller institution, O’Halloran said.

Women in Science

Sweet Briar, a women’s college, allows undergraduates opportunities to do serious research in atmospheric and environmental sciences at a time when women are famously underrepresented in many scientific fields. So the loss of the research tower and facility would also mean a lost opportunity for Sweet Briar’s current students who want to pursue scientific careers but need research experience, O’Halloran said.

Verena Joerger, who used the tower to conduct research for her senior thesis, is among the last students to study at the tower. Throughout the summer of 2014, Joerger helped O’Halloran build the tower and the laboratory, which included learning to climb the tower, installing instruments, and outfitting the wooden research shed with equipment.

“I might not have felt as comfortable volunteering for those types of activities if I were in a co-ed environment,” Joerger said. “At a women’s college you don’t have that feeling that maybe you’re not as qualified as your male peers.”

Tower Embed 2
Joerger waves from the top of the atmospheric research tower she helped build with O’Halloran. Credit: Thomas O’Halloran

Using the data collected at the tower, Joerger created a research project and presented a poster at the American Geophysical Union’s 2014 Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. Next fall, she will be starting graduate school in atmospheric sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, N. Y.

However, for students who have yet to graduate, prospects are more grim. Emily Dallas, a current junior at Sweet Briar, was going to conduct a summer research project studying solar radiation, but now those plans must be put on hold. In fact, the day the school announced it would close, Dallas and O’Halloran had planned to meet and discuss in depth what her research project would be, Dallas said. Now she must search for a new summer research opportunity to build her scientific resume, before transferring to a new school in the fall.

Opportunities Lost

If research can no longer continue at the facility, future students will “miss out on being a part of something that is a lot bigger than Sweet Briar,” said Joerger, because it is “an opportunity that most students at small liberal arts colleges wouldn’t have.”

The tower was “going to be part of two international research networks. We could do it with undergraduates and we could do it with women,” O’Halloran said. “Right now, it has no future.”

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2015), What will become of Sweet Briar's atmospheric research station?, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO028569. Published on 22 April 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
  • Karen McGoldrick

    I think we will save Sweet Briar…and the tower and the professor and the research will continue. Have faith, thousands are working to save your job along with our beloved college.