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These researchers don’t just track the weather, they fly right into it

April 6, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT  | Updated: Apr 7, 2016 at 6:16 PM
When weather events like El Niño impose themselves, everybody on the planet feels it. Scientists are getting better at predicting El Niño, but there is still a lot they don't know amid an absence of data. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien follows along as weather scientists gather information in Hawaii by air and by sea.
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Editor’s note: In the story we incorrectly identified the Jason-3 oceanography satellite as a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency. It is in fact a four-partner mission between NOAA, NASA, France’s space agency CNES and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, with NOAA as the lead agency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, this has been a stronger season than usual for the weather pattern known as El Nino, a phenomenon that affects weather all around the planet

Scientists and forecasters have repeatedly warned about its impact this year. But they still want to find out more about it to better gauge what it might do.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien went with them to see what they’re learning.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s another beautiful day in sunny Hawaii. A Gulfstream G4 jet spools up its engines and taxis for departure.

The plane is the ultimate in business jet luxury, in this case minus the luxury. Nicknamed Gonzo, it is owned and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, and the business is scientific research on one of the most significant weather patterns on the planet, El Nino.

They make a beeline from good weather to bad.

MAN: Positive rate. Gear up, gear up. Heading and altitude? Verified.

MILES O’BRIEN: The cabin is filled with researchers using sophisticated equipment. They are part of a scientific campaign on multiple fronts, deploying satellites, drones, planes, balloons, surface ships and buoys, all focused on the largest El Nino in nearly 20 years.

BILL PATZERT, NASA Climatologist: El Ninos come small, medium, large and what I’m fond of calling is Godzilla.

MILES O’BRIEN: Veteran NASA climatologist Bill Patzert has studied El Nino his entire career. He watches the weather from a perch in space via the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California. Launched in January, the Jason-3 oceanography satellite is the fourth in a series NASA and the European Space Agency have deployed to monitor El Nino and sea level rise since the early ’90s.

BILL PATZERT: When these events impose themselves on the climate system, everybody on the planet feels it. And the droughts, floods are spectacular and they’re global.

MILES O’BRIEN: Here’s what makes an El Nino tick: Normally, trade winds blow from the east westward across the Pacific Ocean. This creates a mound of water near Indonesia that is as much as 10 degrees warmer and 1.5 feet higher than the water off the coast of Ecuador.

During an El Nino year, the trade winds either stop, or blow in the opposite direction, transporting the mound of warm water to the east.

BILL PATZERT: So, it’s a tremendous redistribution of heat. And so when this happens, all the pieces on the weather board are rearranged.

MILES O’BRIEN: The unusually warm water adds heat and moisture to the air above it, and it rises, causing rain, often torrential, on the West Coast of the United States and in Central and South America.

At the other side of the Pacific, the colder-than-normal ocean leads to serious droughts in Southeast Asia, India and Africa. It’s the kind of weather no one can ignore.

WOMAN: El Nino is threatening parts of the West this morning with more dangerous weather. Heavy rain and high winds will take aim at California.

MILES O’BRIEN: Strong El Nino winds bring colder temperatures and more rain across the Southern U.S., this year triggering flooding and mudslides in Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee.

And it flattens out the northern jet stream, redirecting the flow of cold polar air, resulting in a milder winter for much of the country. Scientists are getting better at predicting an El Nino. They foresaw this one six months in advance, but there is still a lot that they don’t know.

CHRIS FAIRALL, NOAA Physicist: This is not rocket science. It’s much, much more difficult than rocket science.

MILES O’BRIEN: Chris Fairall is a NOAA physicist. He says one of the key challenges is data, or, more accurately, the absence of it. El Nino forms along the equator in the Pacific, as remote as any place on the planet.

CHRIS FAIRALL: It’s a gigantic data void. There’s a huge area with no islands, no land stations, no radiosonde. And it’s extremely active.

MILES O’BRIEN: That is what makes this flight, one of 22, so crucial. They are now flying 45,000 feet above the equator.

MAN: I think the model’s wrong, which is part of the mission here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Randy Dole is a senior climate and weather scientist with NOAA. He and the team are Hoovering data in the place where they have the least of it, hoping to fix what is broken in their model.

RANDY DOLE, NOAA Meteorologist: Some of the errors were larger than we might have even anticipated. And this affects not just the weather models, but it affects models that are used to project U.S. climate on a seasonal scale or even globally on the long-term.

MILES O’BRIEN: As they fly, they gather data left and right, aiming a side-scanning radar at nearby clouds to determine how much moisture they contain.

MAN: Three, two, one, drop.

MILES O’BRIEN: And they look out below as well, releasing a few dozen dropsondes, which transmit real-time snapshots of temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction as they fall toward the sea.

Dr. Dole is also very interested in the connection between El Nino and climate change.

RANDY DOLE: There are several papers that suggest that — that some of the events like the climate we’re seeing may become more frequent, that is, extreme warm events in the future. This kind of mission or campaign ultimately provides data that will help to improve the models needed to understand that question.

MILES O’BRIEN: Meanwhile, in Pearl Harbor, the crew of a NOAA research vessel, the Ron Brown, readies to set sail on a month-long voyage into El Nino waters.

MAN: Bridge copies all hands aboard. Ship to colors. Hundred RPMs on the port.

MILES O’BRIEN: Lieutenant Adrienne Hopper is an operations officer in NOAA’s Commissioned Corps.

LT. ADRIENNE HOPPER, NOAA Operations Officer: Increase speed to 400 RPMs. Thrusters all ahead 400.

MILES O’BRIEN: She and her crew will be maintaining several buoys along the equator called the Tropical Atmospheric Ocean array. The TAO buoys were deployed to better understand El Nino by gathering data just above and below the surface, and beaming it to forecasters via satellite.

LT. ADRIENNE HOPPER: So, this is a temperature and conductivity probe. This is one of the first probes that’s immediately below the surface of the mooring collecting temperature and conductivity data. They go down about every 20 to 25 meters between the surface down to about 500 meters.

MILES O’BRIEN: And when you think about El Nino, this is kind of where the rubber meets the road, as it were, right?

LT. ADRIENNE HOPPER: Absolutely.

MILES O’BRIEN: This really is a key point to know what’s going on underwater and the atmosphere immediately surrounding it.

LT. ADRIENNE HOPPER: Absolutely. Together.

MILES O’BRIEN: They hope to add one more piece to the puzzle on this voyage, launching weather balloons every three hours.

MAN: OK, one, two, three, release.

MILES O’BRIEN: Designed to gather the same kind of data as those dropsondes released from 45,000 feet.

MAN: It was in the clouds roughly right in this period here.

MILES O’BRIEN: What goes up apparently must go down in this racket.

After deploying 27 dropsondes…

MAN: Landing gear is down. Three green confirmed?

MAN: Confirmed.

MILES O’BRIEN: … Gonzo comes down eight hours after leaving Honolulu. The next day, Dr. Dole debriefed the flight for me.

RANDY DOLE: So, this is the actual flight plan track. That’s in red. These are dropsonde points in the plan.

MILES O’BRIEN: On the left is the forecast model, what was predicted, and on the right is what we saw during the flight.

RANDY DOLE: We want to see if in fact this model is right in predicting that we should have seen more activity on this side even than we saw in the eastern portion, where there was existing activity already. So was it going to develop here or not? Three or four model cycles had said it was. So, let’s test it.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, based on this flight, how would you grade this model?

RANDY DOLE: Not very good. I’m a hard grader, but I won’t give you a letter grade on it, but let’s just say it didn’t happen.

My sense is that they should be in good shape if they turn, it looks like, at about one north, instead of at the equator.

MILES O’BRIEN: They are seizing the scientific moment, hoping this is a perfect opportunity to make the model smarter. It can’t stop El Nino’s conveyor belt of moisture, but it might give us better warning.

Miles O’Brien, the “PBS NewsHour,” Honolulu.

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