January 27, 1998
By Mark Hoover
If you're one of those people who leaves your seatbelt on for the whole
flight from New York to Los Angeles, just in case there's turbulence, then
you can especially appreciate the mix of fascination
and...anticipation...that goes with waiting for the right storm to form
way out in the central Pacific, a storm violent enough to attract
meteorologists who want to fly through it and take its pulse. I'll be
hitching a ride with those meteorologists, and you can bet I'll have my
seat belt on.
In October, NOVA got started on a television program about El Niño and the
global weather machine, which will air in the fall. As one of the people
making the program, I learned about meteorologists who, shall we say,
really get into their work. They fly specially equipped planes through the
core of violent Pacific storms to collect data that cannot be gotten in any
other way. This is what I call extreme science. And it's only the first of
many adventures we'll embark on over the next month as we take the measure
of El Niño, from its origins off the coast of South America, to its
effects across the globe.
There will be only a day or two's notice before a candidate storm proves
strong enough to be worth sending the planes out. With a crew of eight,
including Navy pilots, navigators, and even a "bombardier," these are
serious missions. More on that bombardier: the plane itself is bristling
with instruments, weather radars, and fancy computers, but still, it's only
one plane flying in a straight line through the storm. In order to add an
extra dimension to the data gathered from the flight, drop sondes are
jettisoned out a special chute every few minutes, once the action heats up.
Fitted with propeller wings like a maple pod, these miniature weather
stations radio back a stream of measurements as they spin down through the
storm until splashing into the sea four or five miles below. At almost a
thousand dollars a pop, you don't want to waste them on just any old storm.
When the drop sondes' data is combined with the plane's, and correlated
with satellite measurements and land-based radar images, a
three-dimensional portrait of the storm emerges, a CAT scan of a killer
still in its lair.
So here I sit, waiting, watching the Weather Channel a lot more than usual,
listening for the phone to ring, and a voice to say, "we're on!" Then I'll
hurry to join the crew in the plane for a rendezvous with a monster. So
will you, as we recreate the Storm Flight for you here on the Web site.
El Niño has been throwing off a lot of Pacific storms this winter, but no
one knows exactly when the next whopper will spin up. A storm that formed
over the weekend almost had the right stuff, but started breaking up at the
critical moment of decision. That's ok. There's plenty more where that
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