Adam Theisen: Managing ARM Instruments

Published: 18 February 2020

Schooled in weather radars and quality control, one scientist leads ARM into a new era of data gathering

This article continues a series of periodic profiles on scientists who create and apply ARM data.

Adam Theisen
Adam Theisen, ARM instrument operations manager, works at Argonne National Laboratory. Photo is courtesy of Theisen.

Atmospheric scientist Adam Theisen, a data quality expert with a background in radars, grew up on a 200-acre dairy farm in central Minnesota. The homestead was a few miles from a town with barely 400 residents.

That’s about the same number of instruments he now keeps track of as instrument operations manager for the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

ARM has fixed and portable atmospheric observatories in climate-critical locations across the world and has been collecting and archiving data for close to 30 years.

Important work, says Theisen, who is based at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois, is done by the 70-plus ARM instrument mentors and their associates who ensure the operational efficiency of all the instrument systems in ARM’s capabilities toolbox. They manage every item of computer-linked gear, from finger-size temperature probes to scanning radars the size of suburban houses.

Mentors are the subject matter experts on the both the instruments and the measurements they take, says Theisen, “as well as a bridge to the scientific community.”

They also share that bridge role with ARM translators, the software and subject matter experts who shape data in ways that are accessible and streamlined for researchers.

A Wide Net of Mentors

ARM Data Quality Office 10 years ago
Theisen (bottom left) poses in 2010 with colleagues from the ARM Data Quality Office in Oklahoma.

Instrument mentors are wholly funded by ARM for mentoring work, but only some are full time. They come from multiple DOE national laboratories and universities, and some are affiliated with other federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mentors network by emails, calls and text messages. “They are a well-oiled machine,” says Theisen.

The mentors communicate with Theisen, others throughout ARM, the instruments themselves, and with instrument technicians at ARM observatories. ARM has fixed observatories in Oklahoma, Alaska, and the Azores as well as temporary deployments currently in Norway and onboard an icebreaker in the central Arctic.

Theisen took over as instrument operations manager in 2018 from now-retired ARM veteran Doug Sisterson, who said as he closed out his career, “I think of ARM as a factory and our product is data.”

Theisen was ideally suited to assume the role. He was operating radar systems in college while still a teenager. And for years he worked closely with Sisterson as a member of ARM’s Data Quality Office based at the University of Oklahoma.

“The DQ Office,” as insiders call it, turns 20 years old this year. It’s ground zero for what Theisen calls “the first real assessment of ARM data quality.”

Lessons From Nature

Adam Theisen with his brothers
Theisen, around age 4, sits on a pumpkin at his family’s Minnesota dairy farm with his brothers, Ryan (left) and Christopher (right). Photo is courtesy of Theisen.

Theisen is a native of tiny Upsala, Minnesota, where his high school graduating class was one of the largest ever at the time―about 42 students.

His father, Robert, studied marine biology and geology in college and instilled an observational rigor in his three sons. (Adam has two older brothers.) They were raised to see nature as both a wonder and the locus of facts.

“We were science-process-oriented on the farm,” at first with a geological spin, says Theisen. “We were always out in the fields looking at rocks.”

Meanwhile, both his father and his mother, Judy, “held us to high standards when it came to school,” he says.

At age 7, Theisen was standing on a stack of hay bales when the clouds above started to rotate.

“Rain chased me inside,” he says. But 20 minutes after the storm had passed, Theisen realized a tornado had struck within a mile of the family house.

“I was always interested in weather after that tornado experience,” says Theisen, who also admits to a boost from “Twister,” the 1996 big-screen disaster epic. Ryan, the oldest of the brothers―and now an accountant―took him to see it.

Radar Days

Adam Theisen with his parents
Theisen (center) celebrates with his parents, Robert and Judy, on the day he received his master’s degree from the University of North Dakota. Photo is courtesy of Theisen.

“I knew at 14 I would be a meteorologist,” says Theisen.

By 2003, he was on his way to the University of North Dakota (B.S., 2007, M.S., 2009). The school had several attractions: a good meteorology program, a C-band radar on the roof of the department building, dramatic weather, and his brother Christopher, who by then was a meteorologist himself. (He taught Theisen in two radar classes.)

By his sophomore year, Theisen was part of a study on the climatology of storms in the area.

The university’s old rooftop surveillance radar, WSR-74C, had been upgraded to a dual-polarized (polarimetric) system that transmits both horizontal and vertical radio wave pulses. Adding pulses in the vertical enriches data on hydrometeors, which are generally defined as a variety of precipitation types.

Theisen ran sector scans of storm cells and before long, in 2006, was running the university’s rooftop radar for the first phase of a study of weather modification funded by North Dakota’s Atmospheric Resource Board. The Polarimetric Cloud Analysis and Seeding Test (POLCAST) went on to inspire short field campaigns in 2008, 2010, and 2012.

During this research as an undergraduate, Theisen, among other tasks, radioed pilots on the best locations for cloud-seeding aircraft to light chemical flares at the base of clouds.

In the end, the first phase of POLCAST delivered “a better idea of the microphysics of the storms,” as well as a nice data set, he says―though “not enough for definitive conclusions.”

Adventures in Science

Adam Theisen and University of Oklahoma students
(Left to right) Theisen and University of Oklahoma student data quality analysts Aaron Hardin, Erika Kruse, and John Ragland pose at ARM’s Southern Great Plains atmospheric observatory in 2012. Photo is courtesy of Theisen.

POLCAST gave Theisen a subject for his senior thesis and a taste for field work. His university years also included several formative adventures.

In 2006, early in his junior year, he traveled to Senegal, in Africa, to assist his university mentor, weather radar expert Paul Kucera, who is now in Boulder, Colorado, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).

Theisen’s challenge was twofold: to help with rain gauges and radars during NASA’s African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analyses mission in Senegal and to travel to Senegal. Theisen had never been outside Minnesota and North Dakota.

“Just getting off the plane,” he says of the two weeks abroad, “just being in a place so tropical, it hits you like a wall. It was the furthest I had gone.”

In 2007, Theisen spent five days in Boulder for the annual undergraduate leadership workshop in atmospheric science at NCAR/UCAR―”a phenomenal experience,” he says.

And just after graduating in 2007, Theisen made his way to a summer internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.  One half of the program was to do science. The other half was to “learn the skills necessary to excel in a professional environment,” he says.

That summer, Theisen studied space weather―specifically how solar plasma discharges towards Earth affect the ionosphere and disrupt aviation communications.

The ionosphere, extending 60 kilometers to 1,000 kilometers (50 miles to 600 miles) above the Earth, is crowded with solar-charged particles called ions, which reflect radio waves.

During the Langley internship, Theisen met his future wife, Casey, a microbiologist. Today, she works in cyber security.

Ice Crystals, Rovers, and Satellites

Adam Theisen hiking in Oklahoma
Theisen pauses during a 2010 hike near Turner Falls in the Arbuckle Mountains of south-central Oklahoma. Photo is courtesy of Theisen.

In the fall of 2007, back in North Dakota for a master’s degree, Theisen investigated banded structures that appear on polarimetric radar data during snow events and how they correlate to ice crystal habit, a term for crystal type.

The research involved driving out into snowstorms to catch ice crystals on black fabric, then taking pictures of them in the shelter of the car’s trunk.

The study yielded very interesting correlations between the banded structures showing up on radar and ice crystal habit. The data and analyses were documented in his thesis, says Theisen, but “sadly” never made it to a paper.

For nine months after graduating, Theisen was a systems engineer in West Virginia with Mountain State Information Systems Inc., then a NASA contractor vetting software for satellites and planetary rovers.

It was a short-lived job, however. “Just looking at code without being able to run it is not the most fun,” he says. In March 2010, Theisen signed on with the DQ Office in Oklahoma, where he launched his ARM career.

Among the satisfactions of DQ, he says, was working with undergraduate student data analysts from the University of Oklahoma. In the summer of 2018, Theisen helped two of them construct a low-cost weather station for about $300 in materials. It was based on a design by Kucera, his onetime mentor.

UCAR and the National Weather Service’s International Activities Office developed the design with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

The low-tech, low-budget installation “did really well,” says Theisen, as a peer-reviewed paper now in review will show.

Beyond 2020

Adam Theisen and his wife and children
Theisen poses with (from left) his wife, Casey, and their daughters, Auria and Maya. Photo is courtesy of Theisen.

After eight years in Oklahoma, Theisen and his family made the move north to Illinois so he could manage ARM instrumentation and the staff who keep it running smoothly.

Sometime in 2020, Theisen would like an ARM instrument dashboard in place that will consolidate, for internal staff, information from databases related to data quality, corrective maintenance, site operations, and other streams of as-yet-unconnected information.

“I want to automate and simplify processes,” Theisen says of his plans for internal systems. “Bringing all ARM’s instrument information together in one place would give us an overarching view of an instrument’s status that we do not currently have.”

In 2020 and beyond, he will also keep an eye on new instruments coming online at ARM, an “additive” process that Theisen says runs in parallel to the user facility’s expanding interest in data types.

For one, he points to an emerging emphasis on measuring precipitation inspired by the work of ARM instrument mentors Mary Jane Bartholomew, a geologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, and Matthew Sturm, a snow researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Related investigations are unfolding at ARM’s North Slope of Alaska atmospheric observatory in the form of a new sonic snow-depth sensor, new bucket rain gauges, and a particle-measuring device for calculating the mass flux of blowing snow.

“New instruments up there will be very intriguing,” says Theisen, whose thoughts―of course―also turn to new instruments in the cloud-swept Azores, the Arctic, and elsewhere.

Building and Cultivating

“Once you’re in ARM, you can’t get away. We’re all working towards a purpose.”

Adam Theisen, ARM instrument operations manager

At home, before children (daughters Maya, 5, and Auria, 18 months), Theisen and his wife spent their time hiking, kayaking, and woodworking, including do-it-yourself efforts that took several years in their old house in Oklahoma.

“We had two weeks in our fully renovated house” before moving from Oklahoma to Illinois, he says.

There was also time for planting grapes, hops, blueberries, and more in raised garden beds; for home brewing (hence the hops); and for making crafts, including a two-story treehouse.

“I like working with wood and building things,” says Theisen.

He employs the same urge to make things orderly in the world of ARM instrumentation.

“Once you’re in ARM, you can’t get away,” says Theisen of the instruments that bring in intriguing atmospheric data. “We’re all working towards a purpose.”

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ARM is a DOE Office of Science user facility operated by nine DOE national laboratories, including Argonne National Laboratory.