Scientists fly into winter storms to better understand crazy weather: NPR
High in ice-filled clouds, sitting inside a plane loaded with scientific instruments, Christian Nairy watched images scrolling across his computer screen. This high-altitude slideshow shows real-time images of cloud particles sampled by a device on the plane’s wing – and some of the ice crystals looked like perfect little snowflakes.
“They’re amazing to watch. Especially when they appear right in front of you on screen, it’s remarkable,” said Nairy, who holds a doctorate. student at the University of North Dakota.
He is just one of several scientists who were aboard a research plane earlier this month as it took off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to ride out a winter storm – as part of a research campaign called IMPACTS, or the Microphysics and Precipitation Survey for the Atlantic Coastal Storms Mission.
It collects the kind of information that could one day help meteorologists better predict whether a winter storm could cause dangerous conditions that would require school closures, road closures and flight cancellations.
Until this mission, which began in 2020 and ends Feb. 28, there hadn’t been a major airborne survey of winter storms in the eastern half of the United States for about 30 years, says Lynn McMurdie, atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington. in Seattle.
“We’ve had some really good storms,” McMurdie says. “Whatever Mother Nature gives us, we’re gonna fly in it. We go out and try to get the whole gamut, from a super snowstorm blocking all traffic up and down the East Coast to ‘oh, c is just a normal rainstorm, why do you care? “
The biggest storm they flew in was the January 2022 blizzard which dumped about 2 feet of snow on parts of the Atlantic coast. “It was crazy,” Nairy recalls. “We encountered crazy turbulence on this flight.”
Scott Eisen/Getty Images
This year, however, eastern blizzards have been relatively hard to come by. “But you know, that’s what we have and we’ll make the most of it. And I think we have great data,” McMurdie said. “So there will be a lot of studies on all of these different storms, even if they’re not the epitome of the beautiful snowstorm.”
One of the goals of this project is to better understand the bright “snow bands” that frequently appear on winter storm radar maps east of the Rocky Mountains.
Scientists have known about these distinctive radar patterns for a few decades, but it’s still unclear how the bands form or what exactly is going on inside these clouds, McMurdie says.
That’s why IMPACTS scientists plot their flight paths to cross the bands of a storm.
Instruments mounted under the wings of the P-3 aircraft can directly sample cloud particles. Researchers inside the plane can also send dropsondes, small probes that parachute through the storm and send back data on things like temperature, pressure, relative humidity and wind speed.
Meanwhile, another research aircraft, the ER-2, frequently follows the same flight path, but at higher altitudes of over 60,000 feet. It has instruments that also collect data about the storm, from above.
“I think what makes it most special is that we’re coordinating these two aircraft,” McMurdie says, “and we’re looking for this wide range of storms.”
One thing researchers hope to understand is the role of supercooled liquid water in thunderclouds. Under certain conditions, water can remain in liquid form down to minus 34 degrees Celsius, or about minus 29 degrees Fahrenheit.
Small droplets of this supercooled water sometimes adhere to the snow crystals. “Imagine a beautiful snowflake, and then it has all these tiny little dots. It looks like it has a case of measles, or something,” McMurdie says.
What they’ve seen so far, she says, suggests that this type of water is an important aspect of snow bands, possibly leading to higher water content, more ice particles and possibly more of snowfall on the ground.
The massive amounts of data collected above, below and within this diverse array of winter storms should give meteorologists much to think about in the years to come and hopefully eventually be incorporated into models. forecast, so future weather reports will give a better idea of what a storm might be capable of.
“I’m continually amazed every time we ride and fly,” McMurdie says. “Every time there’s something that says, ‘Really? What’s going on there?’ “