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Tim Wilson: Climate research from the ground-up

ORAU/ATDD Scientist Tim Wilson studies climate through soil samples from the U.S. Climate Reference Network

Tim Wilson: Climate research from the ground-up
Tim Wilson

In more than 140 locations across the United States, climate monitoring stations are constantly measuring temperature, precipitation and soil properties for a national system known as the U.S. Climate Reference Network (USCRN). From his office in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, scientist Tim Wilson, Ph.D., studies soil data collected from the network to help uncover what is happening to climates and ecologies across the country.

Wilson is a scientist for ORAU and the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division (ATDD) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and he is the only scientist at ATDD studying soil sample data that is collected from USCRN stations. 

“The sensors are all in very different environments. For example, think about sensors in Arizona versus California versus Florida,” explained Wilson. “Different regions with the sensors have vastly different climate.”

When analyzing the soil sample data, Wilson is specifically looking at the soil moisture levels and changes that may impact the climate or ecology surrounding a given station location. The soil properties obtained from a sample allow Wilson to take a closer look at the performance of the soil sensors.

“I look at the numbers and see what makes sense, and what measurements we need to be sure the data quality is at a level we know it should be,” said Wilson.

With a background in physics, atmospheric science and micrometeorology, Wilson isn’t physically working with the soil samples. Instead, he uses data taken from the USCRN to understand the differing sensor climates.

Wilson has been studying soil data from the USCRN since 2009 when soil moisture measurement was first added to the network. In the past decade, Wilson has uncovered site-specific soil properties that affect the network’s soil sensors. However, gaps in the data proved a need to improve sensor performance and enhance the accuracy and quality of the USCRN’s soil data.

“What we’ve discovered through the soil moisture is that the sensors are not meant to be used in remote locations where you don’t have easy access to care for them daily,” said Wilson. “Now we know that the sensors we initially selected to make soil measurements in the USCRN are not as robust as we need across the whole network.”

After a decade of carefully studying soil moisture data from the USCRN, the original sensors will be replaced, and much of Tim’s research will now look at understanding the soil data that the new sensors collect.

“We want to ensure we’re producing the best quality data that the sensors can produce, and we look at all the factors that come into play,” explained Wilson. “Whether it is the soil, whether it is where the sensor is installed, whether it is the fundamental physics that go into deriving the particular results, we look into it all.”

At the end of the day, Wilson said the number one goal of the U.S. Climate Reference Network is to better understand the climate.

“I enjoy seeing how the environment works. That’s the enjoyment I get. All of these different pieces collected together make the environment what it is, and seeing that dynamic is interesting,” said Wilson.

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