"MPEX scientists are trying to capture the large-scale, upper-level atmospheric disturbances, like pressure changes, and use this information in the forecast model to better predict the initiation of storms," Lu added.
The project involves a large team of scientists, representing the National Center for Atmospheric Research; Colorado State University; the University at Albany at the State University of New York; Purdue; the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; and NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory.
Looking 'upstream' in Tornado Alley
MPEX data collection and modeling will take place over the next month, during the height of tornado season. Early in the morning, before commercial air traffic picks up, scientists will lift off from an airport in Broomfield, Colo., in a Gulfstream V jet, funded by the National Science Foundation, cruising about 7 miles above the earth over the southern portion of Tornado Alley.
The goal is to get a more complete portrait of conditions "upstream" of the thunderstorms, which usually form later in the day. At regular intervals during their six-hour, 3,000-mile trips, researchers will drop small instruments attached to parachutes out of the plane. These instruments, called minisondes, will collect temperature, moisture and wind data every quarter of a second as they fall to the earth. The jet itself is also outfitted with data-collection technology.
During the afternoon, other researchers will release weather balloons near burgeoning storms to learn how the surrounding atmosphere is affected.
"We know that once thunderstorms exist that they disturb their environment; this can make the rest of the atmosphere more chaotic," Trapp said. "We don't know the magnitude or the extent of this disturbance."
The scientists will then experiment with different ways to assimilate this data into computer models to learn which prediction methods are most accurate. The hope is to develop an early warning system similar to what meteorologists currently use for hurricane projections, Trapp said, or a "cone of probability of where a storm will form and what its path will be" in the crucial hours before the storm hits.
If successful, the MPEX (pronounced "em-pex") could save lives as severe storms become an increasingly persistent threat to Americans. According to Munich Re, a global reinsurance agency, severe thunderstorm losses in the United States have "increased significantly" since the 1980s. Last year, thunderstorms and tornadoes resulted in around $7 billion in insured losses (ClimateWire, Jan. 4).
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500