Winter storm research gets a local helping hand
Winter snow in the Northeast is quickly catching up with death and taxes in terms of guarantees. We may catch a lucky break every now and then (see: current winter) but more often than not, we get quite powdery from December to March - sometimes in November and April too!
While much of the country turns white during the winter, we along the eastern seaboard are more susceptible to really big snows thanks to our ocean proximity. Land-originating systems like Alberta Clippers typically move through rapidly, and thus leave us with minor accumulations. Cold fronts can sometimes cause headaches, but warmer air riding up ahead of them is also a limiting factor (that rain/snow line loves to play games with us forecasters.) But coastal storms (often Nor'easters) pack an extra punch. They usually contain a lot more moisture, and when they interact with arctic air coming down from Canada, you can get a winter wonderland in a hurry.
Snowfall within these storms is frequently organized in banded structures that are poorly understood by both meteorologists and computer models. We have seen vast improvements in weather technology since the last major East Coast winter storm study - ERICA in 1988 - so NASA decided it was about time to conduct a new one. And Long Island's Stony Brook University is going to be there to help.
Over the course of three six-week deployments, the Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms (IMPACTS) will fly aircraft with advanced weather-sensing equipment. IMPACTS will address several objectives and providing observations that are critical to better understanding how these storms organize and evolve.
While hopeful to experience one of those good ol' fashioned coastal storms this winter, the university's School of Marine and Atmospheric Science will be testing any snow-producing storms. With 2020's first snow event of note this past weekend, they conducted their initial field day at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. The day began with hitching a trailer containing their next-generation radar, along with several other weather-tracking instruments.
"Most operational radars scan every five or six minutes, so you only get data every five or six minutes," says Stony Brook Professor Brian Colle. "This radar we have here is actually scanning continuously, so we're actually getting data every few seconds in a volume of about 90°, and so we can actually see the evolution of the snow and the snow bands within the cloud in ways that we haven't been able to before."
"This is the future of radar," says his associate Pavlos Kollias. "In addition to continuous scanning, this radar has no moving parts, which makes it extremely mobile. Stony Brook [School of Marine and Atmospheric Science] is one of the only in the country to have this."
To augment the data being collected on the ground, graduate students on hand assisted with tri-hourly weather balloon launches, which measured vertical profiles in the atmosphere during the snow event. All of this real-time weather data was transmitted back to both the Stony Brook contingent and NASA.
NASA, which has granted the school $1.4 million for research over the next few winters, also flew multiple aircraft through the storm to record measurements that will further advance understanding of the winter storm mechanics.
The entire research crew from Stony Brook is thrilled to be underway with this project. "We're very excited today; we've been waiting for this for about a year," says Colle. "This is the first of three years we are going to be using this technology out in the field."
Colle says that the data will also be used for weather models -- and for students to use in their own research.