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Scientists 'fly' into storms from their computers

Until a year ago, if you wanted to fly into a storm in the name of science, you had to strap yourself into an airplane and hold on tight.
A supercell that became a Tornadic vortex signature lights up the night sky with lightning over Amarillo
A supercell storm lights up the night sky with lightning over Amarillo, Texas, in 2008. Gene Blevins / Reuters
/ Source: OurAmazingPlanet

Until a year ago, if you wanted to fly into a storm in the name of science, you had to strap yourself into an airplane and hold on tight. Now, thanks to a new radar fleet, scientists can create models that let them fly into these dangerous storms from the safety of the computer lab.

Tools such as these "fancy new radars" will help forecasters in the future to better predict severe weather and improve scientists' understanding of climate change, said Gerald Mace, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah. Mace talked about how these new radars will help scientists plug gaps in their climate models by giving unprecedented looks inside storms during a talk today (Dec. 8) the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

"We all know that our ability to predict climate is not where we want it to be at this point," Mace said. "The majority of this uncertainty is due to the clouds in these models."

The newly deployed radars are a combination of high-frequency radars that measure clouds and lower-frequency radars that track precipitation. The new data will give scientists a better picture of how water cycles through the clouds. Together, the new radars will keep a close watch on storm clouds' inner workings and lead to 3D models of a storm.

These radar systems have been in the field for less than a year, but the early data has Mace excited.

"We're basically going to fly through a snowy weather system on the North Slope of Alaska," Mace said to the audience as he queued up a 3D computer model. The new radar there is the northernmost precipitation radar on the planet. "It's allowing us to observe processes in the Arctic that up to now have never been observed," he said.

The 3D model of the storm lets Mace and colleagues zoom in and out and circle the storm to look at it from different angles.

"To a scientist, that's excitement," Mace said.

One of the new radars, in Oklahoma, captured a "beast of a system" in one of Tornado Alley's trademark supercell storms. These are the towering thunderstorms that can spawn tornadoes.

"We can look inside of the thunderstorms, we can look inside of the clouds, and tease out the actual air motions and turbulence that are driving the process that we need to understand," Mace said.

The new radar systems were funded by $30 million from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and deployed by the Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility.

Mace said it's still going to take a large team of scientists and an army of grad students to use the data to improve climate models. But as long as the radars continue to work as they have, and as long as the funding is maintained, Mace said the radar data could start to improve climate models within five years.

You can follow OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel on Twitter: @btisrael. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.