Main Navigation

Science in the rain: Alexandra Ponette-Gonzalez

Scientists make the case that human observation of storm events—be it rain, snow or fog—is key to understanding wet weather and its myriad effects on the natural world.

Alexandra Ponette-Gonzalez, U planning professor and curator of urban ecology at the Natural History Museum of Utah

Scientists need to get out of the lab and into the rain, says an interdisciplinary group of researchers led by environmental scientist John T. Van Stan of Cleveland State University. Writing in the journal BioScience, the authors make the case that human observation of storm events—be it rain, snow or fog—is key to understanding wet weather and its myriad effects on the natural world.

Directly experiencing such episodes can reveal ephemeral phenomena, which can spur curiosity and lead to novel insights, according to Alexandra Ponette-González of the University of Utah and her 20 co-authors. They are concerned that remote sensing and other technologies, while offering critical advantages, can’t observe everything worth observing when it comes to storms.

“We reflected on the increasing use of technology in science and the need for technologies to complement rather than substitute observations of the natural world, specifically storm events,” said Ponette-González, associate professor in the U’s Department of City & Metropolitan Planning and curator of urban ecology at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Her various coauthors hail from across the disciplinary spectrum and around the world, but their common interest is the study of how water moves through, interacts with and shapes ecosystems. They have noted a trend in the scientific community towards relying on technologies to study storms and their consequences.

“Natural scientists seem increasingly content to stay dry and rely on remote sensors and samplers, models, and virtual experiments to understand natural systems,” they wrote. “Consequently, we can miss important stormy phenomena, imaginative inspirations, and opportunities to build intuition—all of which are critical to scientific progress.” 

This type of “umbrella science,” they warn, can miss important localized events. For instance, in describing rainwater’s flow from the forest canopy to the soils, the authors note that “if several branches efficiently capture and drain stormwaters to the stem, rainwater inputs to near-stem soils can be more than 100 times greater.”

Ponette-González, who has a doctorate in forest ecology, investigated the interaction between fog and tropical montane forests as part of her dissertation, requiring her to spend time in the woods nearly every day for three years, rain or shine. 

“We studied the amount of water that enters forests during fog events, but also the chemistry of that water,” she said. “Fog is incredibly variable over space and time. It varies from slope to slope, from the edge of a forest to the interior, from mountain to mountain, and across elevational gradients. There’s also a lot of variability over time as well. Many fog events are ephemeral.”

Because of their ephemeral nature, low-lying fog, vapor trapped beneath forest canopies and condensate plumes can escape remote detection, yet be sensible to scientists on the ground. Combining direct observation with remote sensing has greatly advanced scientific knowledge of the ecological roles of these phenomena.

“There are a lot of systems affected by ephemeral events, like fog,” Ponette-González said. “The California redwood forest is an amazing example of a system that we now know, through direct and remote observation, depends on fog for its survival.”

The article authors argue that overreliance on technology can lead to a “large potential bias in surface temperatures simulated by Earth systems models,” which often underestimate canopy water storage.

“Given that direct observations are often infeasible, remote observation systems are crucial for capturing phenomena that are frequent, long-lasting, or not easily predicted, but this introduces limitations to what we perceive,” the article states. “An unintended consequence of their deployment is that many scientists may not enter the storm, instead forming perceptions on the basis of sensor data while staying dry.”

Direct observation also has merits beyond remedying the shortcomings of “umbrella science.” Van Stan and colleagues see intrinsic value in firsthand storm experiences—not only for natural scientists, but also students studying climate change impacts on ecosystems.

This immersive method enhances understanding, incites curiosity and strengthens bonds with nature, thereby enriching environmental education, inspiring research and preparing the future scientific community.

This story is adapted from a news release provided by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which published the peer-reviewed journal BioScience.