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Unique plane helps hunt winter storms

Posted: February 20, 2013 - 1:09am
In this January 2013 photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lead electronics technician Gabriel Defeo works at a console on NOAA's Gulfstream IV aircraft during a Honolulu-based winter storms reconnaissance mission. The console controls the plane's tail Doppler radar. (AP Photo/NOAA, Nicholas Morgan)  Nicholas Morgan
Nicholas Morgan
In this January 2013 photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lead electronics technician Gabriel Defeo works at a console on NOAA's Gulfstream IV aircraft during a Honolulu-based winter storms reconnaissance mission. The console controls the plane's tail Doppler radar. (AP Photo/NOAA, Nicholas Morgan)

JUNEAU — What’s the trick to helping figure out winter weather on the U.S. mainland? One way, according to meteorologists, is sending a hurricane hunter aircraft from Alaska or Hawaii to fly reconnaissance over the Pacific Ocean.

For about 15 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has conducted such flights with the goal of improving weather forecasts for the United States — an idea born after winter flights over the North Atlantic improved storm forecasting in Europe.

Data gathered by the high-altitude Gulfstream IV, or Gonzo, typically used to study hurricanes, is used in real-time by meteorologists to improve and extend forecasts involving potentially dangerous winter storms. The aircraft this winter is based out of Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu and so far has run a series of missions out of Anchorage, Alaska, including one last week to aid forecasts for an Alaska storm and a system that brought wind and snow over the weekend to parts of the Northeast.

On any given day, the aircraft can travel about 3,500 miles, covering a substantial amount of the distance between the two states, and get a good look at what’s going on with the jet stream, along which weather tracks, said Jack Parrish, a flight meteorologist and NOAA manager for the winter storm project.

The plane is deployed to wherever it needs to be in the region to have the greatest impact on the forecast, he said.

“Most of the time, we do fly over a developing winter storm, quite often a very vigorous one,” he said. “Every now and then, we fly out there in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there’s just absolutely nothing happening in the weather,” but it’s an area about which forecasters based in Maryland need additional data.

Winter weather often tracks from the Pacific, which is largely a black hole of information. Every day, hundreds of weather balloons with instruments that help measure things such as atmospheric pressure, humidity and wind are launched over North America, but only a handful from Pacific island stations, which are not necessarily where forecasters most need the observations, he said.

“That’s the beauty of the NOAA jet. We can fly very high, fast and far, going to the areas where they most need the data,” Parrish said.

With the resulting forecasts, citizens can be warned with sufficient lead time for preparation, and emergency managers, first responders and power companies can prepare for severe storms and the aftermath, he said.

A lot of the work this winter has dealt with the severe storms that eventually hit the southeastern U.S., he said.

While Hawaii isn’t usually associated with winter weather, the heavy rainfall and big snowstorms that sometimes hammer California are a function of the atmospheric rivers that come out of the subtropical jet stream, Parrish said.

Instruments launched from a hatch on the aircraft from as high as 45,000 feet transmit data back to the plane and is ultimately sent in a special code understood by meteorologists. The instruments cost about $600 apiece and the crew drops up to 20 per mission, Parrish said. The budget for the project, set to end next month, is slightly under $1 million, he said.

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