Thursday, March 03, 2011

U of I faculty collaborate on paradigm changing effort to understand winter storms

U of I faculty collaborate on paradigm changing effort to understand winter storms

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Just last month, the haunting images of stranded vehicles on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive and the harrowing accounts of the people who were trapped there provided Illinoisans with an emphatic demonstration of the power of winter storms to disrupt human life, even in cities, where the forces of nature are normally kept at bay so effectively.

And disruption from winter storms is not an anomaly, notes Bob Rauber, who is head of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois. He points out that adverse road weather, mostly in winter, plays a role in nearly 7,000 deaths, six million injuries and 1.4 million accidents per year in the United States. Beyond that, as we have seen this winter, the costs associated with a single blizzard can strain even the most carefully crafted state and municipal budgets.

For the record, Rauber does not see a future in which people can manipulate winter storms to mitigate their effects. He is, however, confident that atmospheric scientists can come to a much better understanding than they now possess of how winter storms work. Toward that end, he and two colleagues are conducting a multi-year research project called “Profiling of Winter Storms,” or PLOWS.

The first stage of the project, a massive data collection effort, was conducted during the two winters preceding this one. This effort involved both undergraduate and graduate students from the U of I, as well as cooperation with scientists and students from the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Missouri and the National Weather Service.

Much of the data for PLOWS was collected by teams using mobile, ground-based equipment, whose job it was to set up in the projected path of a storm and take measurements as it passed over them. The ground teams operated on standby, and aimed to be in place ten to twelve hours before a storm hit. They collected all of the standard weather data, such as temperature, air pressure and wind velocity. But they also deployed an array of specialized instruments, including a vertically oriented RADAR unit to gauge the speed of updrafts, and a video imager that makes it possible to see the structure of snow particles.

The PLOWS group also collected data from within storm clouds, thanks to use of a specially equipped C-130 aircraft, supplied by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Unlike the ground-based teams, which had to count on storms moving over them, the team in the air was able to move through storms and target the components of greatest interest. (Of course, this also meant they were collecting data at 250 miles per hour.)

Analysis of the data collected during the two field seasons of the PLOWS project is still in the early stages, and likely to continue for years. But already meteorologists who have seen it have labeled it paradigm-changing for the insight it provides.

Ultimately, the understanding of winter storms developed through the PLOWS project will enable meteorologists to more accurately interpret what’s happening within storms as they occur, so that they can provide the public with useful information, such as where and when the heaviest snow in a storm will fall. Such information could one day be transmitted to commuters via a phone alert, enabling them to avoid a route that’s about to be pummeled by a storm.