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Gijs De Boer
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Gijs De Boer

NOAA scientist wins Presidential award for using science drones to understand climate change in the Arctic

by Sarah Fesenmyer (NOAA Research Communications)

“I love being part of the UAV revolution,” says NOAA/CIRES scientist Gijs de Boer. UAVs are unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, and NOAA research laboratories are rapidly expanding the scientific applications of UAV technology. 

Launching a weather balloon

Launching a weather balloon

Gijs de Boer (left), with Al Bendure, at Oliktok Point, Alaska (Credit: William Finamore)

De Boer, Ph.D., is an atmospheric scientist with CIRES, a partnership between NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder. He works in the Physical Sciences Division of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, focusing on understanding Arctic cloud formation using UAVs to gather atmospheric data. In February President Obama named de Boer, 36, as one of 105 young scientists to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, a high honor he earned for his contributions to Arctic atmospheric science and its broader implications for global climate change.  

De Boer has been hooked on weather in the high latitudes since graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he dove into a rich new remote sensing dataset obtained from locations in the Arctic. He was fascinated by the variability in cloud formation and surface-air exchange associated with annual transitions between ocean and sea ice, and bare tundra and snow cover.

DataHawk2 flight paths

DataHawk2 flight paths

Oliktok Point, Alaska

The Arctic is changing rapidly, with air temperatures increasing twice as fast as in other parts of the world, leading to loss of sea ice. Sea ice generally reflects sunlight, while dark open ocean absorbs the sun’s energy, resulting in additional temperature increases. Accurately modeling climate and sea ice trends in the Arctic is therefore a crucial component for predicting global climate change.

“One problem,” says de Boer, “is that current climate models for the Arctic don’t necessarily do very well at simulating clouds.” This is a problem because clouds play a major role in regulating air temperature and sea ice melt, blocking solar radiation from reaching Earth’s surface during the day and warming the surface during the long polar night. Growing expanses of open water in the Arctic change the availability of water and heat to the atmosphere, altering cloud formation and potentially moderating the rate of future ice melt. De Boer says that we need to understand the complexities of Arctic cloud behavior and cloud-climate feedback mechanisms in order to better predict the speed of global climate change.

Launching the DataHawk

Launching the DataHawk

De Boer (right) and Jack Elston launch the DataHawk for flight at Oliktok Point, Alaska. (Credit: Jack Elston)
He and his colleagues are using UAVs to gather better data on Arctic clouds. UAVs have a number of advantages over other remote sensing technologies. The DataHawk2, which they flew on the North Slope of Alaska last August, weighs 2 pounds, costs less than $1000, and takes just two people to run.

De Boer’s team used the DataHawk2 to record vertical and horizontal variability in temperature, humidity, and wind speed over relatively short flight paths. Climate models are defined on grids with cells tens to hundreds of kilometers wide, and one grid cell might be evaluated using observational data from only a single fixed point. “UAVs are allowing us to capture the range of variability in atmospheric data for a specific grid cell,” explains de Boer, “and this should help us improve model representation of clouds.”



De Boer prepares the DataHawk2 for flight at Oliktok Point, Alaska.

The team launched the small drone at Oliktok Point on the Arctic Ocean. The vast landscape of coastal tundra is seemingly empty, but when operating the drone, “We never stray more than a few arm lengths from a building or car—in order to keep safe from grizzly or polar bears!” says de Boer.  

In the course of his fieldwork, De Boer has realized the importance of sharing climate research with Arctic communities, who are already seeing substantial environmental shifts. He has organized colleagues to make outreach trips to Arctic towns like Barrow, Alaska, giving public lectures on their research and visiting classrooms.  In Barrow, the Inupiat traditional whale hunts require a stable sea-ice platform, not present in some recent years. The community needs accurate predictions of changes in temperature and sea ice to adapt their way of life.  “I was immediately struck by the level of engagement of the Alaskan communities on understanding the complexities of their changing environment,” says de Boer.

Ipalook Elementary School

Ipalook Elementary School

De Boer visited classrooms in Barrow, Alaska

De Boer is committed to Arctic science. He will take the DataHawk2 and a larger UAV back to Oliktok Point in April for more flights. However, he is also quickly expanding his expertise into emerging UAV technology, from aircraft types to data sensors. He is collaborating with the University of Colorado Boulder and industry partners on new applications for science drones. For example, de Boer hopes to participate in a project to use a small UAV to deploy marine micro buoys which would transmit data on upper oceanic temperatures, salinity, and surface air pressure via satellites. “I am really excited by the rapidly-evolving opportunities for new scientific research using unmanned aircraft,” says de Boer. “It’s a great time to be in this field.”

Learn more about de Boer’s field research from his blogs:


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