Research at Blackwell-Tonkawa Airport could change weather science forever

by Charles Gerian

Some of the most cutting-edge weather research in the entire world is being done right in your own backyard.

It’s a cool afternoon in May at the Blackwell-Tonkawa Airport where University of Utah Professor of Atmospheric Science Dr. Gannet Hallar and UAS Operations Lead for the ARM Aerial Facility, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL) Pete Carroll are taking a breather in the airport’s main hangar where, feet away from them, rests one of the nation’s most advanced unmanned aircrafts.

They’re looking for answers. Answers that can only be found in Oklahoma.

Their goal? Pushing and breaking the limits for how accurate weather predictions can be.


“I wrote a proposal to the Department of Energy- their Atmospheric Measurements Program- to use this aircraft to answer some scientific questions we have, namely how particles form in the atmosphere,” said Dr. Hallar.

“What we see is gasses, sticky gasses such as sulphuric acid. They stick together and they make very small particles in the atmosphere. They grow, and grow, and eventually, water condenses- sticks to them- and they form clouds.”

Dr. Hallar’s question, among several others, is what are the specific conditions that allow that scientific phenomenon to happen?

Research conducted in Finland and Utah suggests that this is caused by turbulence in the atmosphere.

Still, it’s the work in Kay County, taking advantage of Oklahoma’s unique atmosphere, the Blackwell-Tonkawa Airport, and the advanced capabilities allowed by the United States Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement unmanned aerial system (UAS) that will hopefully bring Dr. Hallar and her program the answers they desire.

“The UAS can detect particles nearly at their creation using a suite of advanced devices,” Dr. Hallar explained, “very recently they added a new instrument that can count them even lower. We can see when the molecules come together.”

“There are a lot of atmospheric research aerial systems in the community,” said Pete Carroll with the PNNL, “but this one is by far the largest and the most capable as far as payload, time to fly, this is the best capable one nationally.”

Dr. Hallar and her team are using the UAS to take precise readings in the atmosphere at different altitudes, adjust down to the smallest possible detail, probe the atmosphere in ultra-high resolution, and then see the data come to them in real time.

Their measurements come from the air and the ground thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy's Southern Great Plains Atmospheric Observatory just 13 miles away.

“We will spend the next several years trying to understand how, for instance, one day the particles started to grow at the surface and come up and how one day it went down.”

The University of Utah was chosen out of 9 competing institutes to use the UAS by the PNNL.

When asked if Oklahoma’s especially turbulent severe weather season this year has impacted the data, Dr. Hallar noted that the storms and the rain clean up the atmosphere, allowing for much more concise data.

“We benefit from this weather, actually,” she said, “it’s been exciting to have a bunch of meteorologists out here. These storms are something else!”

The UAS has a range of 100 Nautical miles, or roughly 115 miles. The actual applied range is much shorter, according to Carroll.

“We have several observers on the ground, spread out of course. We communicate with Vance Air Force Base, we communicate with land-owners in the area, everyone really comes together for this research to make it as safe as possible for all parties.”


Dr. Hallar explained that the goal of all their advanced work is to more accurately predict weather patterns, something that all Oklahomans can get behind, especially during severe weather seasons.

“About 50% of all particles in the atmosphere are created during this process that we’re studying,” Dr. Hallar said, “so when you think about weather and climate predictions we really have to understand how many particles will be there if we change the composition of the atmosphere.”

And how is that possible? Taking better care of our environment.

“One thing we’re doing across the United States is reducing the amount of coal-fired power plants, and they’ve been doing that in China as well. These plants produce sulfur dioxide which becomes sulfuric acid in the atmosphere. That’s super sticky, and starts to grow these particles. What’s going to happen to the atmosphere when we reduce that?” Dr. Hallar asked.

“In Bejing, the nitric acid from cars has taken that over, but we’re trying to see what this looks like in the next 20 years.”

Dr. Hallar stated that this specific region is, she believes, a fantastic spot for the research due to surrounding power plants, but she stressed that the research is still on-going in trying to determine how -or even if - the plants impact the atmosphere.

“This doesn’t just benefit Oklahomans,” said Dr. Hallar, “this is used across the globe.”


“The Blackwell-Tonkawa airport is really nice,” Dr. Hallar praised, “we’ve been welcomed and supported so strongly by the community, here. And we’re huge fans of the bakery and Mary’s Grill in Tonkawa.”

Dr. Hallar’s team is of two, but their work has brought in colleagues from the State University of New York at Albany using a weather prediction model, modified as the data is collected, to improve weather forecasting capabilities further.

Pete Carroll’s team consists of over 20, and he said that they take full advantage of everything the area has to offer.

“A majority of us stay at the Holiday Inn in Blackwell,” Carroll said, “we are big fans of Blackwell. We are big fans of Los Potros, Braum’s, Walmart, United. We’ve been coming out here for quite a few years now, and everyone is always so friendly and welcoming.”

This is Carroll’s 6th year at the Blackwell-Tonkawa Airport.

“We become a part of the community when my team is here, when these programs come through. We shop, eat, and go to the casinos and bowling alleys. The Blackwell-Tonkawa airport has been so supportive,” Carroll continued, “they have improved their infrastructure here at the airport with the funds we provide which helps us, which entices others to come when we aren’t here, it’s a very awesome relationship that we have here with the airport that benefits all parties.”

“The impact to the airport, and community, has been huge,” said Airport Manager Dennis Pearce.

“For years a lot of the business was in Ponca City, and now it’s here. They spend money in Tonkawa and Blackwell, a lot of money. Gas, appliances, it’s hard even to fathom the dollar impact they’re having on the communities here.”

“The airport benefits tremendously, the money they pay us has gone to improve so much about our facility, and that helps everyone that comes through here in the future,” Pearce explained.