Assessment of the Surface Radiation Budget using Ship Tracks (16/08)

Company: Remote Sensing Group, RAL Space

Location: STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Harwell Oxford, Didcot, Oxfordshire, OX11 0QX. Supervised by Dr Matthew Christensen/ Dr Caroline Poulsen.


RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. RAL Space works alongside the UK Space Agency (UKSA) who co-ordinate UK civil space activities and has around 200 staff. RAL Space provides world-leading research and technology development, space test facilities, instrument and mission design, and studies of science and technology requirements for new missions. The Remote Sensing Group designs algorithms to detect and monitor the constituents of Earth’s atmosphere using satellite measurements. It develops cutting edge satellite products such as ozone and methane profiles, as well as cloud and aerosol products. It is also involved in the process of defining requirements for future satellite instruments with the European Space Agency (ESA).


Aerosols and greenhouse gases have steadily increased due to anthropogenic activities since the industrial revolution. While elevated levels of greenhouse gases have led to substantial global warming, cooling effects of aerosols have masked part of this warming to a largely unknown extent due to complex interactions between aerosol and cloud that affect the incoming solar and infrared radiation from reaching the surface.

One prominent example of aerosol-cloud interactions is a phenomenon known as ship tracks (see shown in the figure below). They are bright linear features as shown in satellite imagery that form when the exhaust from oceangoing vessels mix with the clouds. They provide an ideal laboratory because the clouds contaminated by ship emissions can be isolated and examined separately from the surrounding clean clouds. The radiative cooling effect from ship tracks can be quite large locally; although previous studies inferring this response have used the top of atmosphere radiation budget. At the top of atmosphere the outgoing infrared radiation is unimportant for these low-level clouds. To examine the role of this response we have recently fit a new radiation scheme to the ORAC (the Optimal Retrieval of Aerosol and Cloud) algorithm that will provide a unique opportunity to study the thermal infrared and solar radiation impacts from ship tracks at the ocean surface.

The student will run the code to visualize and analyse a database consisting over 5,000 ship tracks. Results will be displayed on the RAL Space website to provide visibility of this unique dataset to the climate community.

Student Specification:

The student will have the opportunity to deepen their computer programming skills, learn about and discover the theory behind aerosol cloud interactions, and use state-of-the-art satellite retrievals combined with a radiation model to quantify the aerosol indirect forcing. Basic computing skills in a programming language is required.

Target courses:

The successful candidate is likely to be in the 3rd/4th years of a physics/meteorology/environmental science or atmospheric chemistry related undergraduate course. A computer scientist with experience developing software with an interest in environmental applications would also be highly suitable.

The Nitty Gritty:

8-week fixed term contract to be agreed with successful candidate, but should nominally to start around 27 June 2016, with the SpIN student Induction day to be held at Harwell on that date. £1,300 gross pcm.

Closing Date for Applications: 15 April 2016

Applications will be through the online form attaching a CV, before the closing date. They will be checked for eligibility and forwarded to the employer.

Apply for this SpIN opportunity

Cookies on Catapult explained

To comply with EU directives we now provide detailed information about the cookies we use. To find out more about cookies on this site, what they do and how to remove them, see our information about cookies. Click OK to continue using this site.