University of Wyoming Developing Better Weather Model, Could Aid in Predicting Tornadoes

October 13, 2015

Recent research involving the University of Wyoming could be used to better predict storms that form tornadoes and help save lives.

Huge thunderstorms in the Great Plains are both a blessing and a curse, explained Bart Geerts, atmospheric science professor.

“If they did not occur, this ‘Breadbasket of America’ would not be there,” he said. “Much of the rainfall during the growing season comes from these great storms.”

What’s difficult for farmers and plains residents is the unknown – current weather models are not completely accurate at predicting these large and potentially dangerous storms. However, a recent multi-million dollar initiative called the Plains Elevated Convection at Night, or PECAN, project is attempting to create a better model to locate storms earlier.

The University of Wyoming’s involvement began partially because of the incredible King Air – a research aircraft stocked with many devices used for various atmospheric tests, said Larry Oolman, atmospheric science professor.

“Combining LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) with our cloud radar is able to provide a really good remote sensing platform,” he told the Laramie Boomerang.

LIDAR is a piece of equipment that uses lasers to detect and measure several different variables, Oolman said. The device used for the PECAN project was more advanced than its standard equipment.

“Below the aircraft, it can detect not only dust layers – aerosol layers – but also to do a profile of water vapor and temperature,” he said. “Rather than have to take the aircraft low to the ground to get the measurements, we’re now able to fly at a greater altitude and be able to get the water vapor and temperature at the ground.”

The King Air was the smallest craft used. Large four-engine aircraft were able to partially enter the storm system while UW’s plane had to stay back to avoid the turbulent wind, rain and possible hail in plains storm systems, said Dana Mueller, a UW graduate student.

Mueller is one of about 300 people involved in the massive project. Six weeks were spent to collect data in Kansas, where Mueller flew about 50 hours. The data recovered will be analyzed by scientists around the country for years to come.

“There has not been a project to this extent with this number of data sets,” she said.

She is using only a portion of the data to write her thesis paper about bores – gravity waves that can emanate from the storm.

“These bores we’re looking at is if they can impact downstream convection, if they can change the stability of the atmosphere or can loft water vapor higher up in the atmosphere and if they can trigger new cells,” Mueller said.

These waves are one of the most important pieces of information to come out of the PECAN project, Geerts said.

“Models don’t quite capture these ripples yet,” he said. “They just don’t have that fine resolution.”

After all is said and done, the researchers and the National Science Foundation, PECAN’s chief funder, hope to give forecasters in the area a more accurate model of predicting storms and what they could produce – strong rain, wind, hail or even tornadoes.

As for King Air, life could be coming to an end. The aircraft is nearly 40 years old, although it is not at risk of falling apart, Oolman said.

“Airplanes don’t age as fast as something like cars, but it certainly is getting up there in years,” he said.

Even though the National Science Foundation pays for the base cost of the plane as well as for individual research trips from professors around the country, UW is looking for new aircraft.

“It’s no secret – we’re looking for something new,” he said. “We’re going in front of the Legislature the next session to try to get funding.”

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