Armed with Science Saturday: Chasing the Winter Storm

When we think of storm missions, we think of tornado chasers.  Hurricane hunters.  People in the thick of the kind of meteorological drama that we typically only see on movie screens.

I love when the flying cow picture is applicable in one of my stories. (Photo from Twister, copyright Amblin Entertainment)

I love when the flying cow picture is applicable in one of my stories. (Photo from Twister, copyright Amblin Entertainment)

And in most cases you would be right.  Because let’s face it; storm chasing is a hard job to “down play”.  It’s pretty much as exciting as it sounds (I’ve spoken to a storm chaser before and he proved that).

But the funny thing about it is that the storm chasing doesn’t stop at deadly cyclones in the summer.  Oh no, my fantastic science fans.  Chasing storms is a year round mission.

So what do the hurricane hunters do during the hurricane off-season?

Why, chase winter storms of course.

Lieutenant Colonel Jon Talbot is the Chief Meteorologist of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, 403rd Wing, Air Force Reserve Command at Keesler AFB, Mississippi.  Basically, he’s the man in charge of the people who chase storms.

All kinds of storms.

Now, the winter storm mission is not a well-known mission, but it’s absolutely an important one.  For the same reasons these pilots and scientists fly into the thick of a hurricane, the winter storm mission is all about getting, analyzing and interpreting data.

Data that could, if all goes well, help to mitigate damage, prepare leaders for contingencies and even save lives.  The goal is to find out how to lessen the impact of big events that are going to impact society. 

This information gathering mission is actually part of a three-tiered effort on behalf of three agencies: the Air Force Reserve – they do the flying part, the National Weather Service – they do the forecast, and the Environmental Modeling Center – they use supercomputers to model the atmosphere.   (BTW, most of the weather forecasts that you see on your local news stations come from the EMC)

This weather trifecta comes together to really break down and understand the winter storms that invade so much of the U.S. during the colder months.

So what is a winter storm, exactly, and why are they so important for us to understand?

“The problem with these big winter storms is that we have these seeds in the atmosphere,” Lt. Col. Talbot explains.  “They actually cause the storm to form.  These seeds ride in the jet stream and they typically cross the North Pacific Ocean and then come into the U.S.  Then you get a storm that forms from these little features will call seeds.”

The computer models then take data from around the world and come up with the best guess for what’s going to happen.  So, when the weather service sees a model that is showing a potential or a large impact storm about to form they want to keep track of the features that are going to produce that storm.

Over the oceans there is typically not a lot of data over the land areas.  U.S. and other countries launch hundreds of weather balloons every day and those model the atmosphere.  These computer models take that data and use it to build the forecast.

“Knowing how the atmosphere moves and does its thing can help you to model out what’s going to happen in the future,” Lt. Col. Talbot explains.

Interestingly, over the oceans there is very little data.  There are very few weather balloons launched.  There are a few islands here and there (true story) but generally it is data sparse out there in the ocean blue.  Experts have to rely only on satellite information to get the data that they need.

That’s where Lt. Col. Talbot and his group come in.

“There are two groups who fly this mission,” he says.  “It is the Air Force Reserve’s the 53rdWeather Reconnaissance Squadron – the hurricane hunters – and the NOAA aircraft operations center at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.”

C-130, rolling down the strip…Er, I mean giant monster storm…

C-130, rolling down the strip…Er, I mean giant monster storm…

NOAA has a high altitude jet, and the hurricane hunters have their w-C130s.  They are both responsible at certain times of the year to have aircraft available to fly predetermined tracks over the North Pacific.  Specifically, where the weather service says their models are a little confused as to what is actually going on in that area.

And we simply cannot have confused models.

But in seriousness, the NWS can lose track of a storm when it goes over the oceans.  And if doomsday movies have taught me anything, it’s that you never want to lose track of a large storm. Or an alien vessel.  But I digress.

“Our job is to go up and fly a predetermined track and drop these instruments calleddropsondes,” Lt. Col Talbot explains.  “These instruments are the exact same instrument as a weather balloon, but instead of going up it goes down to whatever altitude the airplane is at.”

They can target these instruments in specific regions over the ocean, he says.  This process is called targeted observation.

Typically, they drop 20-30 dropsondes per flight.  The data they collect is transmitted out of the aircraft to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.  After they get the information, they transmit it into the database at the Environmental Modeling Center.  That data then goes into the forecast models.

There’s a lot of data sharing going on, am I right? (which almost sounds like a computer joke but I guess in this case I mean that literally)

The hope is that having a better understanding of what’s going on in the uncertain area will help the model to have a better picture of what’s going on “right now”.  That eventually will make the forecast better three to four days down the line.  In some cases, this process will help them forecast even 6 days out.

These types of forecasts are typically used for big time events. You know, the “batten down the hatches and get the kids inside” kind of storms.

Cities take a lot on when it comes to severe weather.  When New York City, for example, has to prepare for a winter storm, they have to get their snow plows, their ice trucks, their sand trucks all filled up, the overtime hours squared away, the crews prepared and ready and so much more.  That all costs them money.  About a $1 million dollars per inch of snow, according to Lt. Col. Talbot.

Because when New York does snow storms, they don’t do them lightly.

Because when New York does snow storms, they don’t do them lightly.

Yeah.  Seriously.  That’s not the kind of number to bat an eye at, which also means that getting the forecast right is a financial responsibility as well as a humanitarian one.

“The idea is that if we can forecast these better we can now say, ‘instead of getting twelve inches of snow you’re going to get rain’,” he says.  “We can make that definitive call so they can utilize the resources that they have more efficiently.”

All of this is just a part of what the hurricane hunters do for the fine folks of this great nation every day.

“The average person probably has no idea that the federal government goes to this extent to try to lessen the financial [impact] and local impact to the citizens,” Lt. Col. Talbot says.

It’s their job, he explains, to get the information needed to make better, more accurate forecasts so people can stay safe.  See, I told you storm chasing was a 365/year job.  But it’s more than just flying high and dropping sensors.  This type of intense information gathering is helping us to expect the unexpected.

“It’s information gathering now to better predict the future.”

It turns out that hunting down and understanding the complicated process of our planetary weather system continues to get easier the better equipment we have, but in my opinion that doesn’t make it any less exciting.

“If you know exactly what to expect, you can take the appropriate measures to lessen the impact,” Lt. Col. Talbot says.

Which is good, since nobody likes a surprise blizzard.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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