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How do you track an atmospheric river? Climb aboard this reconnaissance jet

Ian James, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

OVER THE NORTH PACIFIC OCEAN — The interior of the plane looked like a cross between a private luxury jet and a space mission control room.

The Gulfstream IV cruised at 43,000 feet, high above a seemingly peaceful layer of thick clouds that stretched to the horizon.

Crew members in blue jumpsuits stared at computer screens that revealed their hidden target miles below: a powerful atmospheric river that was churning across the Pacific Ocean toward California, bearing torrential rains and fierce winds.

Soaring more than 1,000 miles northeast of Hawaii, the specially equipped hurricane-reconnaissance jet “Gonzo” was preparing to drop dozens of data-collecting devices into the heart of the storm. By capturing the equivalent of a CT scan, the crew would help to predict when and where the rains would hit. And how hard.

Meteorologists on board a specially equipped hurricane-reconnaissance jet were trying to answer one question: How bad would the next atmospheric river be?

The extreme weather specialists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were on their eighth straight mission tracking the series of January storms that unleashed deadly flooding and widespread damage across the state.


The flights have become critical to preparing for floods and getting people out of harm’s way, said Marty Ralph, a meteorologist who joined the crew as a special guest on the mission.

Ralph has helped pioneer research of atmospheric rivers, or as the experts call them, ARs. He said the flights have become essential for improving forecasts and managing reservoirs and water supplies in this age of extreme weather swings.

“ARs are the big storm for water in the West,” Ralph said. “We are doing reconnaissance to measure these storms, and precisely get the data into the weather prediction models.”

Ralph, who leads the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said the mission would be nothing like flying through the eye of a hurricane. The plane would remain high above the storm, while the atmospheric river, shrouded in clouds, churned away at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.


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