The Heart of a Storm
February 2, 1998
By Mark Hoover
I'm writing this dispatch from Carmel, California, and it's a race to see
which goes belly-up first: my computer's battery, or me. Both of us have
been up all night without a recharge on a remarkable journey through the
heart of a powerful Pacific storm.
Shortly after returning to my hotel this afternoon, the lights started
dimming spasmodically, and then simply went out—a casualty of the storm
we had just plumbed. Not that I could feel any more powerless after last
night. Strapped in my orange flight seat, and looking out the window at
dawn, I now understood why a note of reverie shaded the explanations given
by the meteorologists for these stormflights. I had thought that in an age
of robots and remote-control, there was no call for scientists to put
themselves in harm's way. Now I see there is no substitute.
In an extraordinary piece of luck, the epicenter of the biggest storm yet
this winter moved into position a few hundred miles from Monterey this
weekend, and the meteorologists of CALJET (the project behind these
flights) scrambled to make the most of their fortune. When I got the
heads-up for the flight, takeoff was set for 10:00 pm, and was then moved
to 2:00 am as the last position reports came in. The aircrew and
scientists assembled at the aviation center here a little after midnight.
Meanwhile, 100 miles south and north of us, ground-based stormwatchers sped
to precise locations in DOWs, or Dopplers On Wheels, which look like trucks
onto which a small flying saucer has crashed. Developed to track Oklahoma
tornadoes, the DOWs provide a detailed radar image of the storm as it
reaches the coast.
Our mission was to intercept the storm near its center, and begin a series
of profiling runs at different altitudes, back and forth across the
"fronts," or boundaries, between warm and cold air. Dropsondes (tiny
weather stations equipped with telemetry radio) dropped through a hatch
would add the third dimension to the emerging picture of the intricate
structures of moving air. Each transit of a front, particularly the
passage from cold air to warm, promised a rough ride; how rough depended on
the windspeeds of the channels of air-the scientists called them jets-that
hurtle along in front of these boundaries.
The plane was loaded for bear. With nine crewmembers, six scientists,
50,000 pounds of fuel...and me...we accelerated down the runway at Monterey
airport at a quarter past two, and headed into a pitch black nigh. What we
discovered surprised-even confounded-the scientists. For over nine hours we
roamed vast corridors of wind and rain in a shuddering Orion P-3 airplane,
taking measurements that could be gotten no other way.
Join us on February 5 for StormFlight as we recreate this exciting,
sometimes frightening, and extraordinarily insightful journey into the
100-mile-an-hour winds of a major Pacific storm.
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