A Direct Redirect

This post was provided by Tristan Hall, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

Well I left you hanging last time with me in pure overload and shock – nothing’s changed. This is still amazing, but now I’m overloaded because of the requirements of the job! I wake up early every morning and glean all I can from every model that I have access to. I then use my best judgment and years and years (3, cough) of collegiate knowledge to work on how the weather is going to change and affect our science objectives. For instance, there are these things in the atmosphere called shortwaves. [Begin digression] They are called shortwaves because they are smaller than the larger scale waves. Imagine an ocean wave rising toward the beach with a surfer on it. The surfer’s board makes waves within the big ocean wave. Those are short relative to the big ocean wave – shortwaves. They can kick cyclones (a spinning system – not necessarily a tropical cyclone) into action, or they can break off fragments of an upper-level disturbance away from the flow and make it remain in place for an elongated time dropping days of rain on one location (similar to about a month ago in the Southeast). Those are the fun, tricky little boogers in our atmosphere that like to stir things up. Jerks. [end digression]. The chemical modelers wanted to sample some smoke. So, we planned a mission for smoke with a flight plan all figured out to penetrate the higher concentrations. Well, as the plane neared the smoke during the flight, along came a shortwave and moved it all out of the flight path – sorry team. I love the weather – it really likes to mess with you when it has the chance. Predicting exact orientation, time of arrival, and intensity is universally beyond our control, though. We can tell that shortwaves will move through a system, with a range of intensity, and get an approximate time for arrival and orientation, but no combination of models will agree on all results.

Time is flying by, I no longer know what day of the week it is. I only know if it’s a flight day or a planning day. Planning days are great! Certain teams have different objectives, so when conditions are favorable for more than one teams’ objective, a debate ensues! Us forecasters have to provide an unbiased overview of the weather in support of all objectives (hurricane… hurricane… hurricane…). However, when conditions are favorable for one objective, we will mention it (hurricane… hurricane… hurricane…).

Monday (26 August) was the first of a two-day flight, also known as a suitcase flight. Nick mentions what that is below, so I’ll leave the explanation to him. On Monday’s weather briefing, all the models pointed to showers or thunderstorms within the area of Ellington (lingo: VCSH or VCTS. SH: SHowers, TS: ThunderStorms, VC: within the ViCinity (5 to 10 statute miles)). The DC-8 is a beast and can take off in mostly anything, while the ER-2 is a little fragile. It has giant wings and a tiny fuselage which requires strict criteria for takeoff and landing. Its wings are so big (this sounds like the beginning of a “yo momma” joke) that when it taxis it has special little training wheels to support them. The instruments aboard the ER-2 are susceptible to water, as well (why is a meteorological research vessel’s instrument susceptible to water?).

Days go into planning these flights, so telling a group of people who are anxious for a research flight that they might not get to do it, is daunting. The forecast basically was looking like spotty convection. So, we thought the ER-2 could take off possibly between one of these atmospheric precipitable tantrums. The plane needs to be ready to fly and take off 2 hours before takeoff. The pilot (basically a super-low orbit astronaut; 99% of the earth is below this person as they fly at high altitudes), who wears a form of a space suit, can only be suited up for so long, so the flight can’t really be delayed for an extensive period of time. But I digress… again. We were instructed to come in and assist in the decision on whether the flight was a go or no-go. Well, we had to disappoint – it was too much of a risk for the instrumentation to get wet. However, the DC-8 got off without a hitch, and was en route to the Yosemite Rim Fire. The ER-2 had to sit in its hanger and wait for Tuesday.

On Tuesday (27 August), the second leg of the suitcase flight, conditions were quite nice, and the ER-2 could takeoff to study air up along the Mississippi River Valley and Great Lakes region. The DC-8 took off from Spokane, WA to follow the smoke plume toward Winnipeg (sorry Canadians for the smoke, eh). Well… here is where the horn tooting comes in (enter XKCD comic about “tooting your own horn”. Google it, it’s hilarious.). Earlier in the flight plan while the plane was in Montana, I was looking at satellite and radar and noticed some small convection starting near Lake Manitoba. It seemed that the region’s conditions were favorable for afternoon convection (there was a sufficient amount moisture, to keep it minimal). Our NEXRAD system doesn’t supply data outside US territories. This is what the on flight crews have access to if they would like to look. It’s granulated and not the hires stuff we look at.

 I took it upon myself to read the met discussion from Environment Canada (cool name). A special advisory was issued for southern Manitoba indicating that the region, indeed, was going to experience some heavy convection. Yahoo! The plane’s 3rd waypoint down the road was right in the path of these storms – which were producing a good amount of lighting, including some cloud-to-grounds (CGs), by now. The plane was flying somewhere around 16,000 feet, and these storms were towering to 40,000+ ft. I sent out a warning on our communications channel (it’s really just an instant messenger called “xchat”… it’s not dirty… the “x” is just network lingo stuff) that the plane was headed for a direct hit with these storms. They were still 30+ minutes out, so there was no immediate danger, however, the storms were not going away – they were building.

Radar image of building storms with lightning, flight track, and DC8 position. Blue icons are in cloud lightning strikes, while red are cloud to ground. (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)
Radar image of building storms with lightning, flight track, and DC8 position. Blue icons are in cloud lightning strikes, while red are cloud to ground. (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

Ten minutes passed by and the storms were getting bigger, so, I sent out another warning with a graphic and a little more detail, and informed the big cheeses directly (who couldn’t see it due to the NEXRAD dilemma). They caught on that they couldn’t see the convection and that the plane was heading right into an electrified storm (that’s right! listen to the grad student who’s been staring at the radar all day!). Now, the plane has on-board radar, but it only can see so far, and the way these storms were tracking (along the next leg of the trip), the plane would have had to perform some crazy maneuvering to get around them and get back on track. So, the big cheeses informed the pilots on our xchat to confirm that there were troubling storms ahead, and that some moron wasn’t just saying “beware”. The plane was rerouted and on it went. I know… exciting right? Well it was! I directly had an influence into a flight track and… yea… I’ll say it… saved 40+ lives (but seriously, it wasn’t that dramatic, I kid). Now when I say something on xchat, I hope these people understand “thall” means business!

Like sands in an hourglass, these are the days of my life in SEAC4RS. Keep following along, welcome if you’re new, and I thank you for reading.

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