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Headline: In Search of the Perfect Storm
Naval Postgraduate School Public Affairs Office
Story and photos by Javier B. Chagoya, editor NPS Campus News
From an article published in CN Jan. 25, 2001


P3 fore radome and probe.

NPS's Doug Miller.

P3 cloud physics package.

P3 belly.

Mark Rogers of NOAA.

P3 aft radar.

P3 Ozone attack shark.

With an approaching weather front and an approving crowd of scientists, forecasters, and journalists, a crack team of hurricane hunters aimed their rugged research plane into a Pacific winter storm on Tuesday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) flight crew embarked on one of 16 planned flights to study the physical processes that affect rainfall and winds in the coastal region and foothills of the Sierra. According to Dr. Marty Ralph, chief scientist from NOAA's Environmental Technology Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, the Pacific Landfalling Jets Experiment (PACJET) "is designed to test new ways to improve forecasts of strong winter storms that emerge from the Pacific Ocean and strike the U.S. West Coast each winter.

"These storms can produce hurricane intensity winds and flooding rains, and yet are very difficult to predict partly due to their origin over the Pacific Ocean where weather data are rather sparse," Ralph said. "The combination of these storms with the mountains of the west is a dangerous mix that has led to some of the greatest risks for flash flooding in the nation, and we are trying to address this risk."

NPS professors Wendell Nuss and Doug Miller are co-principal investigators in the experiment, with particular interest in microphysical data to validate the effectiveness of Navy weather and ocean prediction models. The effectiveness and reliability of forecasting models, especially in data sparse regions, has significant implications for naval operations worldwide. But rainfall intensity and distribution, along with localized winds, are difficult to predict. " PACJET will help scientists at NPS determine if we'll ever be able to say with any certainty whether rain will fall in a particular small region or not and whether its even fruitful to approach forecasting from a deterministic perspective."

The specially-outfitted P-3 Orion, nicknamed "Miss Piggy, is carrying an arsenal of electronic equipment, probes and sensors on board to create a better picture on how winds and rain evolve within winter Pacific storms as they collide with the coastal mountains. The multi-engine turbo-prop can be distinguished by its black mushroom-shaped radar dome protruding from the underbelly of the plane. Pointy probes at the nose and port wing of the aircraft shoot out like stingers on a bee. Other sensors are inserted into bottles that hang from heavy-duty wing struts. NOAA's highly-skilled in-flight technicians and electronics engineers load instrument packages and calibrate software packages in preparation for the storm chase.

The sensors and software allow the team to collect thousands of bits of information and to transmit the data in real-time to scientists who are strapped in at monitoring stations located throughout the aircraft. At the same instant, using a new satellite communications link, the P-3 aircraft can transmit the same data to forecasters on the ground.

In addition, Ralph noted that "an array of instruments to measure upper level winds has been deployed along the coast and in the Central Valley of California (along with) a new radar to help us measure precipitation."

Back in the flight planning room, pilots, navigator, and researchers prepare transiting routes and on-station strategies for data collection.  But paramount to the mission is the safety of the aircraft and crew. James McFadden, chief of programs and projects at NOAA's aircraft operations center in Tampa, Florida, has participated in 424 hurricane missions. He has joined the team in Monterey to oversee flight operations. According to McFadden, "the aircrew and science team are the best equipped and experienced people for the project and will provide some of the greatest sources of weather prediction data yet available."

National Weather Service Western Region Director Vickie Nadolski says this experiment will be invaluable to the forecasters. "Much of what forecasters deal with is dominated by events that happen in the short-term (0-24 hours) time scale, such as flooding or high wind events and issuing storm watches and warnings. This experiment will be a great help to us to better understand the influence of the low level jet and the ocean," said Nadolski. "And, we are also hopeful that as a result of this experiment, that long-term programs might be established that would infuse the most useful new technologies and techniques into our daily operations."

Details on the experiment are available on the web at http://www.etl.noaa.gov/programs/pacjet/.

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