January 31, 1998
By Mark Hoover
El Niño is brewing bad weather way out in the Pacific this weekend,
weather that's headed east. The storm flights are on, and I'm on my way to
Back-to-back storms—the strongest of the season—are forecast to hit the west
coast Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. If the jetstream keeps twitching like it
has been this week, it looks like California may be ready for a drubbing.
Right now, these cyclones are organizing in the ocean southwest of Alaska and
the Aleutian Islands.
NOAA P-3 aircraft en route to investigate a major storm.
Last night I spoke with Nick Bond out in Anchorage. A NOAA meteorologist from
Seattle, Bond is studying how these winter storms form in an El Niño
year. (We'll be meeting up with Nick Bond next week to take another flight -
this time in the jetstream.) Nick says these storms are "beautiful specimens"—which means they're pulsating with high-speed winds and a heavy load of
moisture that's going to be dumped like Niagara on whatever land the storms
eventually pass over.
In Monterey, home base for the researchers I'm flying with, Ola Persson is
excited. Persson is a lead scientist for CALJET, the project behind
these storm flights. Data gathered from the flights and a host of other
instruments will be used to improve forecasting techniques. The plan right now
is to fly every day for three or four days in a row, beginning on Sunday night,
as soon as the storms have lined up off the coast.
Each flight can take ten hours, making for a grueling schedule for scientists
and planes alike. However, with storms like these new ones coming in, it's
worth it. Already this past week, the team has been caught off guard by some
of their findings, and that makes them happy. This is how science
advances—not when something happens to confirm the theory—but when
something happens to confound it. The weather guy on the six o'clock news may
make forecasting seem like a well-established science, but don't be fooled by
the fancy graphics and the perfect hair. Weather prediction is a science with
a lot of raw edges and unsolved problems.
I'm packing my gear right now, checking batteries, and testing the mikes. I've
been told to report at the Monterey airfield late tomorrow afternoon for a
briefing. Then I'll grab a sandwich and some Dramamine. If the storms keep
moving as expected, the flight will take off a little before midnight—a
night flight in total darkness on the Midnight Express, out to meet a major
storm a thousand miles west of Monterey. After flying directly into the heart
of the storm, we will make a series of runs down low, 50 or 60 meters above the
waves, gathering information on jets of air near the surface. In an airplane,
that's low. Persson is quick to point out the superb safety record of
NOAA's P-3s. So why did he then casually mention that we'd all be wearing
flotation vests? Draw your own conclusions.
After a night of pounding by the storm as we probe its secrets, we'll land
sometime after dawn on Monday, and I'll begin transmitting the sights and
sounds of storm flying—as well as the science—back to this Web site.
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