The Storm Pipe
February 6, 1998
By Mark Hoover
I should have sensed that something was wrong. At 12:05 pm yesterday, the
airline upgraded me from steerage to first class, no charge, for my
afternoon flight to Alaska - the starting point for a journey into the
jetstream . This is no small matter on a nine-hour flight. For five
minutes, I debated whether I would have the hors d'ouevres before or after
the movie. And then at 12:10 pm, meteorologist Nick Bond called and said
today's research flight over the Gulf of Alaska had been cancelled.
El Niño got me again.
Nick and his colleagues, Mel Shapiro and Rolf Langland, have been
conducting research this winter from Anchorage and Honolulu. (Mel's getting
the suntan, and Nick's getting the frostbite.) On Monday, you recall, we
flew with CALJET out of Monterey to find out what an El Niño winter storm
looks like from the inside, as it approaches the coast. Nick and the rest
of the NORPEX crew look at the other end of the storm pipe, where the
storms form in the north Pacific, thousands of miles away. They are
particularly interested in how upper level winds and the jetstream change
the path that these storms travel.
That's why I was on my way to Anchorage. We had planned to join Nick Bond
in an Air Force C-130 turbojet to investigate the jetstream, and the winds
that nurture the storms pounding the west coast. Changes in these 200 mph
rivers of air that circle the earth in higher latitudes are what make an El
Niño winter a fearsome thing.
Nick said that a new pattern of intense storm generation has emerged in the
last few weeks, an ideal opportunity for the research NORPEX has been
conducting. But the weather (as well as the grueling schedule) has been
beating up the planes. The plane we were to fly on tomorrow is down for
repairs, and won't be fixed in time.
I think the real reason for the cancellation is that Nick's feet couldn't
take another 10 hours standing in the frosty back end of the military
plane. Without insulation, the plane's metal floor stays around zero
degrees, and the only thing you have to look forward to is a cold Air Force
lunch. Such are the sacrifices made in the name of science.
This may be a blessing in disguise. Because of the dramatic southerly
shift in the jetstream this past week, the NORPEX researchers are right now
considering relocating the flights to Portland, Oregon. We may get another
shot at the jetstream this Tuesday out of Portland, just in time for
another huge storm coming in, and before I head to warmer climes—Ecuador
and the Galapagos Islands—and the heart of El Niño.
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