Summer Student Assists in Development of Newest AO Facility

Space & Atmospheric Sciences


Even before the newest AO facility is complete, students and scientists are already hard at work on the relevant science projects. The Culebra Aerosol Research Lidar (CARLA) facility, which began construction in March of 2020, will be used to track aerosols in the atmosphere. Of particular importance is the study of the Saharan dust in the air, which affects air quality and hurricane formation in the Atlantic and Greater Caribbean region. June 2020 saw a uniquely strong dust plume event, causing noticeably dimmer skies as far west as Texas.

Although CARLA is not ready to observe the Saharan Air Layer (SAL) just yet, the lead of the project, AO scientist Dr. Jens Lautenbach, and summer intern Maria Teresa Velazquez Rodriguez, have already made a significant amount of progress.

“There is a global network of scientists who have been studying the Saharan dust,” Dr. Lautenbach explained. “It was important that we compile those previous studies about Puerto Rico into one database so that we can better understand the dust before making our improved measurements with CARLA.”

Ms. Velazquez, a high school student at the Colegio Puertorriqueño de Niñas, spent the summer creating that database to capture all previous research on the topic. “I combed through the web to gather the relevant studies, and then I would read, summarize and add them to the database,” she detailed. She was also responsible for organizing the structure of the database using Microsoft’s OneNote software.

“The database now has over twenty research papers regarding the Saharan Air Layer and its effects on weather, human health, and soil fertilization.” Ms. Velazquez added, “It was so interesting to work on such a relevant project. I was researching the SAL just after it passed through Puerto Rico, so I could explain the phenomenon in detail to my friends and family who were commenting on how the dust was affecting their daily lives.”

“It was so interesting to work on such a relevant project. I was researching the SAL just after it passed through Puerto Rico, so I could explain the phenomenon in detail to my friends and family who were commenting on how the dust was affecting their daily lives.” - Maria Teresa Velazquez Rodriguez, Summer Intern at Arecibo Observatory

The database will feed directly into the research with CARLA. “The knowledge about the past and ongoing research here in Puerto Rico enables us to deliver the right science outcomes and opens up potential collaborations with other researchers,” Dr. Lautenbach explained.
Unlike previous studies, however, CARLA will be able to distinguish the height of the aerosol particles in the air. With a vertical aerosol profile, aerosol layers can be identified and tracked over time. This is vital information to study the behaviour and dynamic of the SAL.

Ms. Velazquez, who plans to study astrophysics in college, reflected on her first internship experience. “I did not know what to expect, but Dr. Lautenbach’s mentorship, guidance, and encouragement made me feel very welcome.” She continued, “this was an opportunity for professional and intellectual growth, and it allowed me to expand my knowledge. It was a great experience!”

Similarly, this summer was the first time Dr. Lautenbach had mentored a high school student. “I was surprised by just how engaged Ms. Velazquez was with the topic,” he said. “It was easy to mentor her because she brought her own ideas and suggestions to the work. I was very impressed by that!”
The CARLA facility was designed to promote STEM education on the island through outreach activities in local schools and by providing opportunities for high school and college students to gain hands-on research experience.
“There will definitely be more interns in the future,” Dr. Lautenbach announced. “We will be looking for students, including university students, to help with the development of CARLA subsystems and to collect and analyze data.”

“Even if some of that work must be remote, that is OK! The point of this instrument is that it can be used remotely and still gather critical information about our atmosphere,” Dr. Lautenbach added.

The team of Arecibo scientists expect the CARLA facility to begin operations in mid-2021. Until then, more preparation and related science projects using the Remote Optical Facility will continue.

Dr. Lautenbach hopes the scientific community and the public will be excited about the new areas of research that will be explored when CARLA begins operation. “At Arecibo, we don’t just study the distant universe, we also are working on projects that have a direct impact on the general population!”

Clear skies over Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico on June 20 (left) and during the dust storm on June 23, 2020 (right).
Credits: NASA/UPR-RCM, Dr. Pablo Méndez Lázaro

Article written by Dr. Tracy Becker - AO Collaborator / SwRI Research Scientist
Arecibo Media Contact
Ricardo Correa
Director of Communications
Arecibo Observatory
787-878-2612 ext. 615

Technical Contact
Dr. Jens Lautenbach
Arecibo Observatory

Keywords: arecibo, observatory, culebra, optics, santos, pedrina, lautenbach, carla, aerosol, lidar, puerto rico