NOAA 2003-015
Contact: Carmeyia Gillis
NOAA News Releases 2003
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The west coast of the United States, already pounded by a series of powerful storms this winter, is getting some extra forecasting support from two aircraft used to research and track tropical storms during the Atlantic hurricane season. For the third year in a row, NOAA National Weather Service (NOAA Weather Service) is operating the Winter Storm Reconnaissance Program to gain an edge on forecasting severe storm systems emerging from the Pacific Ocean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is part of the Commerce Department.

The program, which began January 18 and ends in mid-March, uses similar tactics NOAA scientists use to track and study hurricanes. The two aircraft—NOAA’s Gulfstream-IV jet and the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s
WC-130H Hercules—perform surveillance missions into developing storm systems in the Pacific.

“If you want to really know what the weather will be like in two or three days, you must get an accurate sense of what the weather is doing currently,” said Dr. Zoltan Toth, a research meteorologist at the NOAA Environmental Modeling Center in Camp Springs, Md.

Attacking The Storms:
The aircraft are deployed from one to four days in advance of a potential storm system in the Pacific that appears headed for either Alaska or the continental U.S. On board the aircraft, scientists take atmospheric observations in areas where the measurements are expected to have the greatest chance of improving the forecasts.

Scientists drop highly sensitive devices called dropsondes in strategic areas of the atmosphere. As they fall toward to ocean, the dropsondes measure temperature, wind speed, humidity and surface pressure. The information is relayed in real time to the NOAA Weather Service supercomputer, which incorporates it into the agency’s numerical prediction models. “The net result is a 48-hour targeted storm forecast is as accurate as a 36-hour forecast. That is crucial for residents living in harm’s way,” Toth said.

Past Program Success:
Scientists first began taking experimental targeted observations over the northeast Pacific during in the
El Niño winter of 1997-98. Past results show a 60 to 80 percent improvement in the accuracy of “targeted” weather forecasts. With those positive results, the status of the program was raised from the research level to being fully operational in January 2001.

Since then the observations and data collected are used operationally in NOAA Weather Service weather models. The winter storms program’s observations allow meteorologists to forecast and release information about significant winter weather events 12 hours earlier than without such observations.

New to the 2003 Program:
In addition to collecting severe winter weather information for better national forecasts, one of the features of the 2003 program is its support of THORPEX (The Observing System Research and Predictability Experiment), a global atmospheric research program. THORPEX is a long-term international research program aimed at accelerating improvements in weather forecasting.

Scientists from 11 countries are collaborating to improve atmospheric observing systems, data assimilation, predictability, and economic and societal applications of weather forecasts. The Winter Storm Reconnaissance program will support and enhance scientific research during the THORPEX Observing System Test (TOST) period from February through March.

NOAA’s G-IV jet, primarily used for hurricane surveillance, is based at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. AOC is part of NOAA Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes civilians as well as officers of the NOAA Corps, the nation’s smallest uniformed service. NOAA Corps pilots and civilian flight engineers, meteorologists and electronic engineers are highly trained to operate in adverse weather conditions.

The U.S. Air Force Reserve’s WC-130H “hurricane hunter” aircraft is operated by the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. The fleet of WC-130H aircraft are flown and crewed by Air Force reservists in support of NOAA National Weather Service.

NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center, one of nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction, develops and improves numerical weather, climate, hydrological and ocean prediction models through a broad program of applied research in data analysis, modeling and product development in partnership with the broader research community.

The Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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