Five times in mid-February, a federal storm-hunting jet flew the north Pacific Ocean, gathering data on a storm that was about to deliver a powerful punch to the Great Plains.
The storm itself had yet to form when the first two flights headed out, said Capt. Will Odell, science officer within the National Weather Service.
It would be a week before snowy Nebraska roads would claim the life of a 12-year-old boy east of Chadron and a 19-year-old woman near Grand Island, before the states of Kansas and Missouri would declare emergencies, and schools across the region, including in Omaha, would cancel classes.
But there were signs of the Feb. 20-21 storm forming and it looked like a big one, said Odell, whose agency maps the flights.
Without data from remote areas of the ocean, meteorologists would be nearly blind to what is happening until storms are nearly on top of the mainland. For this reason, flights such as these — the winter equivalent of hurricane hunting — have been undertaken since 1999 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are part of a larger effort that includes satellites, ships and buoys.
The flights show both the difficulty and advances in forecasting.
They are expensive: The jet flies winter storms only in two months, February and March, at a cost of about $1 million.
They are somewhat crude: A solitary jet ejects weather sensors across a vast expanse of the ocean that is two-thirds the size of the lower 48 states.
Yet the effort is high-tech: Twice per second, the sensors record and transmit temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity and air pressure.
By the time the sensors, called dropsondes, have splashed into the ocean, they've produced something that even satellites don't: a detailed examination of all layers of the atmosphere, from the Earth's surface to about 8½ miles up.
The results, fed into a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supercomputer, eventually become woven into local forecasts issued by the National Weather Service.
With this particular storm, the flights were part of a larger success story — a continental forecast that proved remarkably accurate.
Mike Moritz, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Hastings, Neb., said the Feb. 20-21 snowstorm had one of the best winter storm forecasts he has seen in his 20-year career.
For a week, computer models had indicated that heavy snows would strike central Nebraska on the afternoon of Feb. 20. Day after day, the models refused to waver, and on Feb. 20, it began to snow in central Nebraska.
“From the get-go, it was pretty consistent,” Moritz said. “That's a pretty good feeling, when you have that level of confidence when making a forecast.”
That kind of forecasting prompted Moritz and other National Weather Service meteorologists to host teleconferences with sheriffs, school superintendents, public works directors and the news media to warn them of the imminent snowstorm.
The storm would prove as damaging as feared in Kansas, where snows were heavier, more widespread and fell with worse timing than in Nebraska. In Kansas, the storm began before the evening rush hour, snarling many Kansans' commutes. The National Guard was deployed to aid stranded motorists along highways. In Nebraska, 8 to 10 inches of snow fell in the south-central part of the state and 8.3 inches in the Omaha area, where the snow fell a day later and while most people were home.
Because the storm-hunting flights are costly, Odell said, scientists fly only when they are relatively confident that the flights will improve their ability to help protect the public.
The Feb. 20-21 storm was the first of two to cripple the central Plains in less than a week. The agency also scouted the second storm. Four flights analyzed the atmosphere in advance of the Feb. 25-26 storm that swept through the central United States, causing widespread power outages, stranding motorists and leading to multiple highway deaths.
“We don't have the assets to fly on every storm that might crop up, so we have to be judicious when it comes to deploying the jet,” Odell said.
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