New insights into the formation of tiny cloud particles in the Arctic

After landing, the BELUGA tethered balloon is carefully brought back to Ny-Ålesund so that it can be deployed again the next day.
(c) Esther Horvath, AWI

Mobile measuring devices enable the research of atmospheric processes in higher air layers that have not yet been recorded by conventional measuring stations on the ground. The airborne flight systems therefore make an important contribution to research into the causes of climate change in the Arctic. A team of German researchers has combined two of these methods over Spitsbergen in recent weeks: Simultaneous measurements of meteorological parameters and minute aerosol particles were carried out using a tethered balloon system and an unmanned aircraft.

The unmanned research aircraft ALADINA before the next measurement flight. The research village of Ny-Ålesund can be seen in the background.
The unmanned research aircraft ALADINA before the next measurement flight. The research village of Ny-Ålesund can be seen in the background. (c) Lutz Bretschneider, TU Braunschweig


Several cases have already been observed in which these new formation processes took place at higher altitudes, sometimes even between cloud layers, and were therefore invisible to ground stations. These particles can, for example, influence the formation of clouds and thus have an impact on climate change. However, the reason why the Arctic is warming much faster than other regions of the world is still unclear.

In recent years, the Arctic has increasingly become the focus of climate research, as the climate changes observed to date have had a much greater impact there than in other regions. The reasons for this include complex interactions between the atmosphere, sea ice and ocean, which are difficult to quantify and model. In order to improve our understanding of these processes and interactions, more on-site measurements are needed. Only a few continuously measuring stations and mobile measurements with ships and aircraft are available so far as a database and provide the necessary parameters for analyses and modelling.

Scientists from the Technische Universität Braunschweig (TU Braunschweig) and the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research Leipzig (TROPOS) carried out measurements with an unmanned aerial system and a tethered balloon in Ny-Ålesund on Spitsbergen from mid-May to mid-June 2024. They are supported by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), which also co-operates the French-German research base AWIPEV in Ny-Ålesund. This project, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and entitled “Aerosol variability and interaction with environmental conditions based on the small-scale vertical and horizontal distribution of measurements in the Arctic” (AIDA), is primarily investigating the relationship between small-scale air movements and the formation of tiny airborne aerosol particles that can form from gases. As these small particles can continue to grow and then scatter light and contribute to the formation of clouds, they play a major role in the climate.

The ALADINA drone and the BELUGA balloon system were used in the project. ALADINA (Application of Light-weight Aircraft for Detecting IN-situ Aerosol) is an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) of the type “Carolo P360”, which was developed at the Institute for Flight Guidance at TU Braunschweig. It has a wingspan of 3.6 metres, weighs 25 kilograms and can carry a payload of up to 4.5 kilograms. The battery allows a flight time of up to 40 minutes and a speed of up to over 100 kilometres per hour. The unmanned research aircraft has already been used several times, including at the TROPOS measuring station Melpitz near Torgau (Saxony), at BER Airport, in Benin in West Africa and in Spitsbergen in 2018. The special feature of this aircraft lies primarily in its equipment with particle measuring devices, which were miniaturised at TROPOS.

The balloon system BELUGA (Balloon-born moduLar Utility for profilinG the lower Atmosphere) consists of a 90 cubic metre tethered balloon that can carry a payload of up to 20 kilograms, as well as a number of measuring platforms that were specially developed for this purpose and can be used in a modular fashion. BELUGA has already been used during several measurement campaigns in the Arctic: first in 2017 during the PASCAL Polarstern cruise, in which meteorological and turbulence parameters were initially observed. As part of the MOSAiC drift experiment, the balloon was used for the first time in combination with the newly developed aerosol measurement platform CAMP (Cubic Aerosol Measurement Platform), as well as other payloads, including for measuring solar radiation and collecting particles on a filter for later analysis. These various platforms were then used in a measurement campaign in Ny-Ålesund, in which balloon ascents were carried out during different seasons.

Two flight systems combined for measurement campaign for the first time

The 2024 measurement campaign follows on from a series of Arctic studies that have already been carried out with both systems individually. In the measurement campaign for the AIDA project, the systems were combined for the first time in order to determine the three-dimensional distribution of the smallest aerosol particles over the orographically inhomogeneous Kongsfjord. While BELUGA carried out purely vertical profiles, ALADINA was able to analyse the horizontal variability at the same time. BELUGA has the advantage that it can also be operated in clouds, but it is limited to wind speeds of a maximum of 5 metres per second on the ground. ALADINA flies under visual flight conditions, but at wind speeds of up to 15 metres per second. In total, measurements were taken with both systems in parallel on 4 days. In addition, each system took measurements on up to 5 further days. As the two systems have different limitations in terms of measurement conditions, the combination allowed a greater number of measurement days to be covered than with either system alone. ALADINA was deployed on 9 measurement days during the campaign on Spitsbergen. This resulted in 136 profiles during 40 flights and 35 flight hours. The BELUGA tethered balloon was used for 8 flight days and 90 profiles.

Various scenarios for new particle formation

The measurement campaign has so far shown that there are various scenarios that lead to the formation of new particles in the atmosphere:
A very interesting case was the observed formation of new particles between two cloud layers, which could be observed there with the BELUGA tethered balloon and in parallel from the observatory on the Zeppelin mountain. This layer of tiny aerosol particles slowly descended after the clouds had dispersed and could be detected on the ground at the end of the day.

ALADINA was also able to record a day on which extremely high concentrations of the small particles occurred in all layers, even beyond the Zeppelin mountain up to 900 metres. This phenomenon was observed at very high wind speeds and with high variability of the particles in the horizontal dispersion over the Kongsfjord.

Both teams were thus able to observe a variety of phenomena that were new compared to previous campaigns. The very rapid progression of snowmelt and the subsequent start of plant growth in particular appear to be driving the phenomenon of new particle formation very strongly.

In order to understand the various processes that can lead to the formation of new particles, a detailed analysis of the measurement data is necessary, which will keep the scientists busy over the next few months.

Dr Birgit Wehner
Experimental aerosol and cloud microphysics
Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS)
04318 Leipzig
Phone: +49 341 2717 7309

Prof Dr Astrid Lampert
Airborne meteorology and measurement technology
Institute for Flight Guidance
TU Braunschweig
38108 Brunswick
Phone: +49 531 391-9885


Aerosol variability and interaction with ambient conditions based on small-scale vertical and horizontal distribution in Arctic measurements (AIDA)

Project: AWIPEV_0031:

AWIPEV Base: French – German Arctic Research Base at Ny-Ålesund / Spitsbergen

IFF Homepage

Leipzig tethered balloon deployed on Spitsbergen: TROPOS and Leipzig University take measurements in the polar night for the first time (04/10/2021)…
Unmanned aerial vehicles provide new insights into the formation of tiny particles in the Arctic
Leipzig (31/05/2018)…


Harm-Altstädter B, Voß A, Aust S, Bärfuss K, Bretschneider L, Merkel M, Pätzold F, Schlerf A, Weinhold K, Wiedensohler A, Winkler U and Lampert A (2024): First study using a fixed-wing drone for systematic measurements of aerosol vertical distribution close to a civil airport. Front. Environ. Sci. 12:1376980. <05 April 2024>. doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2024.1376980
This research is part of the project ULTRAFLEB (DE: Ultrafeinstaubbelastung durch Flughäfen in Berlin; EN: UFP caused by airports in Berlin) and is funded by the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) under grant REFOPLAN FKZ 3720 52 201 0. The drone ALADINA has been developed by funding of the German Research Foundation (DFG) under grant LA 2907/5-1.

Christian Pilz, John J. Cassano, Gijs de Boer, Benjamin Kirbus, Michael Lonardi, Mira Pöhlker, Matthew D. Shupe, Holger Siebert, Manfred Wendisch, Birgit Wehner (2024): Tethered balloon measurements reveal enhanced aerosol occurrence aloft interacting with Arctic low-level clouds. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 12 January 2024; 12 (1): 00120. doi: 10.1525/elementa.2023.00120
This research was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), grant/award no. 03F0865A, within MOSAiC 1—“AVANTi: Aerosolvariabilität über dem Nordpolarmeer und dem Meereis” and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation)—project number 268020496—TRR 172, within the Transregional Collaborative Research Center “ArctiC Amplification: Climate Relevant Atmospheric and SurfaCe Processes, and Feedback Mechanisms (AC)3” in subproject A02. MDS was supported by a Mercator Fellowship as part of (AC)3, the DOE ASR Program (DE-SC0021341), and NOAA cooperative agreement (NA22OAR4320151).

The Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) is a member of the Leibniz Association, which unites 96 independent research institutions. Their focus ranges from the natural, engineering and environmental sciences to economics, spatial and social sciences and the humanities. Leibniz Institutes are dedicated to socially, economically and ecologically relevant issues.
They conduct knowledge- and application-oriented research, including in the overarching Leibniz Research Alliances, are or maintain scientific infrastructures and offer research-based services. The Leibniz Association focuses on knowledge transfer, especially with the Leibniz Research Museums. It advises and informs politics, science, business and the public.
Leibniz institutions maintain close cooperation with universities – including in the form of the Leibniz ScienceCampi, with industry and other partners in Germany and abroad. They are subject to a transparent and independent review process. Due to their national importance, the federal and state governments jointly fund the institutes of the Leibniz Association. The Leibniz Institutes employ around 20,500 people, including 11,500 scientists.
The total budget of the institutes is 2 billion euros. They are jointly funded by the federal and state governments. The basic funding of the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) is provided by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Saxon State Ministry of Science and the Arts (SMWK). The institute is co-financed from tax revenue on the basis of the budget approved by the Saxon State Parliament.

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