The U.S. Air Force (USAF)’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, commonly known as the Hurricane Hunters, are performing Atmospheric River (AR) Reconnaissance (AR Recon) from January through March.
Scientists, led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego (UC San Diego), working in partnership with the 53rd WRS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Weather Service (NWS) and Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO), will be on standby to fly through atmospheric rivers over the Pacific Ocean to gather data to improve forecasts. The Hurricane Hunters expect to fly approximately 12 storms during that period, deploying up to three planes per storm.
ARs are flowing columns of water vapor that produce vast amounts of precipitation when they make landfall. The heavy amounts of precipitation can turn into extreme rainfall and snow, which then can cause flooding and mudslides. Atmospheric rivers, which average 200-500 miles wide, have their own categories from 1 to 5. Category 5 indicates the most hazard.
ARs have a great economic impact on California and its residents. They are the dominant cause of flooding and play key roles in drought in West Coast watersheds. Flood costs average about $1 billion a year and produce 25-50% of the water supply in key areas of the West.
Two WC-130J Super Hercules from the 403rd Wing staged at Travis Air Force Base, California, then moved to Portland, Oregon, and U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii. A Gulfstream IV from NOAA’s Air Operations Center (AOC) is also staged out of Portland.
While the aircraft and aircrews can be staged at different locations, an additional team, working hand-in-hand with the research team at Scripps, is in charge of mission development and coordination with the flying aircrew.
During AR missions, the 53rd WRS fly up to 30,000 feet to capture as much atmospheric data as possible. The data compiled by dropsondes can create a vertical profile from the aircraft to the surface of the ocean for the research team and forecasters to input in their models.
The data collected from the aircraft is uploaded to forecast models, but the three primary models utilized by the research teams are the Naval Global Environmental Model, the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts and NOAA’s Global Forecasting System which is produced by the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.