NASA planes fly in snowstorms to study snowfall

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NASA’s ER-2, a high-altitude jet equipped with a suite of science instruments, takes off. Credit: NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center

Scientists repeatedly check weather forecasts as they prepare planes for flight and perform last-minute checks on scientific instruments. There’s a big winter storm, but that’s exactly what these storm-chasing scientists are hoping for.

The team is tracking storms across the Midwest and Eastern United States in two NASA aircraft equipped with scientific instruments to help understand the inner workings of winter storms as they form and develop. The team flies two aircraft to investigate winter storms, one above the storm and the other in the clouds. Each is equipped with a suite of scientific instruments to collect data on snow particles and the conditions under which they form. The experiments are part of the second deployment of NASA’s Atlantic Coast Storm Microphysics and Precipitation Survey (IMPACTS), which started in January and is expected to end at the end of February.

These data will help the team relate the properties of snow particles and their surroundings to large-scale processes, such as cloud structure and precipitation patterns, which can be observed with remote sensing instruments on board the planet. planes and satellites. Ultimately, what the IMPACTS team learns about snowstorms will improve weather models and our ability to use satellite data to predict how much snow will fall and where.

Watch for a variety of storms

Storms often form narrow structures called snowbands, said Lynn McMurdie, principal investigator for IMPACTS and an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. One of the main goals of IMPACTS is to understand how these structures form, why some storms don’t have snow bands, and how snow bands can be used to predict snowfall. To do this, the team hopes to sample a wide variety of storms throughout the three-year IMPACTS campaign.

While the IMPACTS 2020 campaign, the team sampled a variety of storms across the Midwest and East Coast, including warmer rainstorms and storms with strong cold fronts and convection. But McMurdie says the team didn’t see a Nor’easter, a storm with a strong low-pressure system that moves up the New England coast and mixes moisture from the Atlantic Ocean with cold air. from Canada.

Nor’easters travel up the East Coast and can dump several feet of snow, effectively shutting down cities, said John Yorks, one of the deputy principal investigators for IMPACTS at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Being better able to predict where these storms will bring snow and how much could help cities better prepare for harsh winter conditions.

NASA planes fly in snowstorms to study snowfall

On January 4, 2022, the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of snowfall after a large storm dumped heavy, wet snow in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Some areas piled up more than 14 inches, closing businesses, schools and interstate highways. Credit: NASA

Above, below and in the clouds

NASA and its partners have several satellites that measure precipitation from space, such as the Global precipitation measurement mission that observes rain and snow over most of the world every three hours. “But satellites can’t tell us much about particles – real snowflakes – and where they form in clouds,” said Gerry Heymsfield, one of IMPACTS’ deputy principal investigators at Goddard. IMPACTS is operated by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which is managed by Goddard.

Instead, IMPACTS flies two aircraft equipped with scientific instruments. NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center ER-2, a high-altitude jet flying out of Pope’s Army Airfield near Fayetteville, North Carolina, will fly at about 65,000 feet to get a bird’s-eye view above the clouds. The instruments on board the ER-2 are similar to those on satellites but with higher spatial resolution, additional measurement capabilities and more frequent sampling. Ground scientists also measure cloud properties from below using ground-based radars.

“A project like IMPACTS can really supplement those spacecraft measurements with higher resolution, more accurate aircraft measurements, sample an event more frequently, and provide additional parameters such as Doppler measurements,” Yorks said.

The other plane, the P-3Orion based in Wallops, flies at altitudes up to 26,000 feet. Probes attached to the wings of the P-3 measure the size, shape and distribution of precipitation particles. Flying the P-3 at different altitudes allows the team to measure snow particles through the cloud, as well as the temperature, water vapor and other conditions under which they form.

The P-3 also drops small instruments, called dropsondes, over the ocean. These instruments work like upside-down weather balloons, measuring the temperature, wind and humidity in the atmosphere as they fall. The team also launches weather balloons every few hours as the storm passes over several sites that move based on the storm the team is studying. Data collected by dropsondes and weather balloons provide information on atmospheric conditions before, during and after the storm.

“Blizzards are really complicated storms, and we need every bit of data — models, aircraft instruments, weather surveys — to really understand what’s going on in these storms,” ​​Heymsfield said.

The multi-year IMPACTS campaign is the first comprehensive study of snowstorms in the eastern United States in 30 years. The science team includes researchers from NASA, several universities across the country, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and NOAA, including partners from the National Weather Service.


NASA Snowhunters Prepare to Fly Through East Coast Winter Storms


Provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center


Quote: NASA planes fly in snowstorms to study snowfall (2022, January 28) Retrieved January 28, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-01-nasa-planes-snowstorms- snowfall.html

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