Colorado State University Scientists Researching Phenomenon in Indian Ocean that Controls Weather Around the Globe

Note to Reporters: Photos of researchers and the research occurring in the Indian Ocean are available with the news release at

Three top scientists in Colorado State University’s world-renowned atmospheric science department will participate in a major international field experiment over the next several months aimed at improving the prediction of worldwide weather phenomena including heavy monsoonal rains and hurricanes.

A phenomenon known as the Madden-Julian oscillation, or MJO – a massive convection system along the equator – occurs with varying intensity throughout the year and affects weather around the globe. The oscillation is named in part for Roland Madden, who obtained his doctoral degree from Colorado State.

Oceanographers and atmospheric scientists haven’t found an easy way to model these processes, so researchers from Colorado State and other universities and federal agencies are headed to the middle of the ocean south of India and Sri Lanka to physically monitor and record them in a large field project called DYNAMO. About 20 CSU graduate students and research staff are participating in the experiments, which include everything from monitoring weather from radars on ships and atolls to launching and taking measurements of the atmosphere using weather balloons.

“When the ocean heats up, we think that triggers widespread convection, which may cause strong ocean currents that come and go,” said Steven Rutledge, a Colorado State atmospheric science professor whose staff and graduate students are on a ship monitoring a Doppler radar that observes all storms in the area.

The radar will document how rainfall from storms feeds back to the ocean, the nature of any rainfall that occurs, and the size and depth of clouds and how they vary with sea surface temperature and ocean currents.

“We’re hoping to learn the physics of the MJO and how it interacts with the Atlantic and Pacific so it can be better represented in models and the impacts on worldwide weather can be better understood,” Rutledge said. “The MJO affects monsoons in Asia and in North America, and it affects the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in Atlantic and Pacific basins. We don’t know why or what causes the MJO to form or when.”

Separately, Colorado State professors Dick Johnson and Eric Maloney are headed to Malé and Gan Island in the Republic of Maldives and their students to the island of Diego Garcia to study cloud systems with weather balloons and radars and help interpret some of the large-scale meteorological conditions.

“With the Madden-Julian oscillation, which develops every 40-50 days or so, there’s a blowup of an area of intense precipitation in the Indian Ocean that generally starts near the equator,” Maloney said. “After it forms, it moves very slowly eastward. Every second, this whole complex shifts five meters. It perturbs global wind patterns, not only in the Indian Ocean and West Pacific Ocean, but also the East Pacific, Atlantic and related areas like the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

“When these large-scale wind patterns reach the Americas, they can affect hurricane activity,” Maloney said. “We need to understand the large-scale pre-conditions associated with these events. We might be able to forecast downstream affect of winds that affect hurricanes in the Atlantic.”

Other participants in the Indian Ocean studies include the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Miami, Oregon State University, the University of Washington and Texas A&M. The program also includes international participation from more than 10 countries, including meteorologists from the Maldives.

CSU researchers anticipate the trip will be a good experience for students who are learning from some of the top researchers in their fields. Colorado State’s nationally ranked atmospheric sciences department is strictly a graduate program that has produced scientists who now are on many faculties and serve in leadership roles in research laboratories around the world.

“Big projects like DYNAMO really give our students the experience to be leaders,” Rutledge said.