Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher W. Fairall

Research Interests

I am a physicist at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado, where I heads the Boundary-Layer Observations and Processes team. I have spent decades developing and deploying air-sea interaction observing systems for NOAA ships and aircraft and have participated in nearly 50 research field programs and cruises from the Tropics to the Arctic icecap. My work is devoted to making direct measurements for verifying and improving the representation of air-sea interaction processes (surface evaporation, absorption of heat, generation of waves, uptake of carbon dioxide) in climate models used for climate change projections.

Current Research

Recently Dr. Fairall has been working on analyzing observations from the High Wind Gas exchange Study (HiWinGS) conducted from the Research Vessel Knorr south of Greenland in fall 2013 (Fig. 1). The project was a cooperation of CIRES, NOAA/ESRL, LDEO Columbia University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Leeds (UK). Observations included air-sea fluxes of several trace gases including CO2 and DMS, whitecap coverage, surface wave spectra, and oceanic bubbles. During the three-month field program, we obtained the first measurements of these parameters with wind speeds exceeding 20 m/s. The data definitively show that parameterizations of whitecap fraction currently used in gas-transfer models are wrong at high wind speeds. We are now using a unique ocean wave model to relate wind and wave characteristics to whitecaps (Fig. 2) and gas transfer. The results are intended to improve NOAA's COARE Gas flux parameterization.

Figure 1. Photograph taken from the bridge of R/V Knorr during the St. Jude’s Day storm in November 2013. The ship was about 200 km south of the southern tip of Greenland. The flux instruments are visible as a cluster on the top of the foremast. Wind speed in the storm topped 25 m/s.

Figure 2. Representation of the dependence of wavebreaking whitecap coverage of the ocean as a function of wind speed (U10) and phase speed (Cp) of the peak of the wave spectrum. The continuous lines are from the University of New South Wales wave model; the symbols are observations from HiWinGS. The legend gives the value of U10 for each model set.

Honors and Awards

  • Member of the NOAA CPPA Science Steering Committee
  • Fellow of the American Meteorological Society
  • AMS Sverdrup Gold Medal winner