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Utah News

Inside Doctor Who: Scientist Talks Photographing Snowflakes

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Tim Garrett
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Images of snowflakes in freefall are helping meteorologists predict winter storms.

In the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas Special, the Doctor, a time traveling alien with a special place in his heart for humanity and the downtrodden, must convince a Scrooge-like character to save a crashing spaceship by turning off a thick cloud belt he controls.

The clouds are teaming with aquatic life including large, scary sharks. And as it turns out, they can be frozen by a voice at the right frequency.

While flying sharks are not real, it turns out frozen clouds are.

“There are frozen clouds in the atmosphere. The odd thing in the Doctor Who episode was that that was presented as something that was unusual. You know, it’s Doctor Who, it’s not supposed to be anything resembling real science anyway,” said University of Utah Professor and Doctor Who fan Tim Garrett.

Garrett will be presenting his own research on frozen precipitation, specifically snowflakes, alongside the Doctor Who Christmas episode on Tuesday at the Natural History Museum’s “Science History Night.”

Garrett studies snowflakes from a unique perspective.

“Photographing the snowflakes almost in the wild before they touch anything,” Garrett said.

Knowing what snowflakes look like and how quickly they fall can help researchers better predict precipitation and avalanches. Until recently, Garrett said, measurements related to snowflakes were based off of only 100 flakes from the Cascade Mountains. Collecting flakes is difficult, cold work, and once they hit the ground they can become deformed.

Taking a picture can solve a lot of these problems, and the high speed camera Garrett developed has allowed the database to grow from 100 to one million snowflakes. Garrett said the actual camera isn’t that specialized, but the shutter speed is.

“The shutter speed that we use is 1/25,000 of a second. By comparison, a good digital camera might go down to 1/2,000 of a second, so we’re about ten times faster than that,” Garrett said.

Having this improved way to collect data has allowed researchers to better predict winter weather, especially precipitation, something Garrett said has been the Achilles heel of weather prediction.

“Being able to represent these processes accurately is crucial for being able to improve cold weather, winter time forecasts, how much snow is going to fall and where it’s going to fall,” Garrett said.

Garrett said right now the microwave radar used in forecasting can tell meteorologists where snow will be, but is not good at telling how much precipitation will fall. Knowing how specific snowflakes reflect the radar will change all of that, he said.

Click here for more information on the Garrett’s talk, and here for a link to a live video feed of the snowflake camera at Alta.