NOAA dispatches high-tech research plane to improve storm forecasts benefiting Washington state, and the Winter Olympics

By:  Staff Writer
Source: Port Townsend Leader

A Gulfstream IV aircraft known for investigating Atlantic hurricanes will begin flying over the North Pacific Ocean to fill gaps in atmospheric observations, intended to enhance forecasts of winter storms for the entire North American continent through improved computer modeling.

The highly specialized twin turbofan jet will be stationed at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan through February before repositioning to Honolulu in March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Jan. 12. From these locations, the aircraft will be tasked by the National Centers for Environmental Prediction – a division of NOAA’s National Weather Service – to fly into data sparse regions to collect information such as wind speed and direction, pressure, temperature and humidity. This data will be sent via satellite to global operational weather forecasting centers — and fed into sophisticated computer forecast models.

These computer model improvements will play an essential role in meteorological support for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in addition to more precise precipitation forecasts along the U.S. West Coast and points further east, according to the press release.

This is the first time such detailed information will be available to forecast winter storms that threaten Washington state, said Sen. Maria Cantwell in a press release. Cantwell chairs the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee.

NOAA estimates the aircraft's special equipment increases both accuracy and lead times for high-impact weather events. For example, model forecasts of precipitation amounts improved, on average, 10 to 15 percent, NOAA reported.

The high altitude, high speed NOAA Gulfstream IV is based at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center, located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.

Last month, Washington state received full funding for a new Doppler radar system for more accurate short-term forecasting. The $7 million included in the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act, along with a $2 million down-payment previously secured by Cantwell, is enough to provide Washington state with a complete Doppler coastal radar system. The National Weather Service plans to have the system installed and fully operational sometime in 2012.