Winter Storm Reconnaissance Program Conducts Research in Alaska Skies
NOAA looks for the next big storm
ALASKA - The sun rose hazy over the Chugach Mountains Wednesday.
Sitting on the tarmac at Ted Stevens International Airport, a G-IV Gulfstream, emblazoned with the U.S Department of Commerce logo, idled in front of the Great Circle Flight Services hanger, heatwaves from its jet engines shimmers over the runway in the chilly morning air.
While patches of blue sky peeked through wispy cloud cover, Richard Henning, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said more than a few inches of snow would cover Anchorage over the next 48 hours.
The Florida-based scientist with NOAA’s Winter Storm Reconnaissance Program is in the business of weather. In just a few hours, he and the seven other scientists with the federal forecasting program would board the jet and take off on a nearly 2,000 mile flight over the Aleutian Islands, gathering atmospheric and weather data vital to accurate forecasting in the rest of the country.
“We’re going to get as far west as we can and gather as much data as we can to help that forecast,” said Henning, standing in the lounge inside the Great Circle hanger. The other team members relaxed in plush, brown leather chairs, clutching steaming cups of hazelnut instant coffee, playing with their cell phones and watching television.
As a national news network rolled footage of a Midwest tornado that injured hundreds Tuesday, the forecasting team prepared to predict the next big storm.
“The computer models are predicting that somewhere between three and four days from now a major winter storm is going to form over the central United States,” Henning said.
But the computer models don’t always agree, and when it came to North Pacific weather patterns, Henning said there was a startling lack of information.
“Throughout the United States we launch weather balloons, there are literally hundreds of stations gathering data, but in the North Pacific you have nothing,” he said.
Armed with 18 miniature tube-shaped sensors, he and the other Winter Storm Reconnaissance scientists are tasked with changing that. The sensors are outfitted with parachutes and atmosphere monitors, and are dropped from the jet in strategic locations more than 40,000 feet over the ocean.
Henning said it takes roughly 14 minutes for the sensors to hit the water, where they’ll sink to the ocean floor and become “crab homes,” but the information they gather during the fall is instantaneously transmitted back to the jet via radio signals.
Dressed for the flight in a bright blue jumpsuit, flight director Ian Sears flipped through a series of slides on a laptop, preparing to give a short briefing on the flight to his teammates. “We’re going to be coming out here towards this low pressure system,” he said, gesturing at a map covered in undulating red and blue lines. He told the crew their flight plan would take them over an active volcano in the Aleutians, but, like the storms they were chasing, it was unpredictable.