Winter snowstorms are increasingly frequent on the United States’ eastern coast and often cause major disruption to transportation, economy, and public safety. In order to study these extreme weather events, NASA has initiated a program called The Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms (IMPACTS).
With the help of an international group of experts and state-of-the-art technology, the project aims to clarify how storms develop and how snow bands can be used to predict snowfall. The research may ultimately help mitigate the natural, social, and economic impacts of snowstorms.
The team will be tracking storms with the help of two NASA planes equipped with top notch scientific instruments. One of them – the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s ER-2 – will fly at 65,000 feet to get a top-down view of the storm clouds, and complement the measurements of cloud properties taken by ground-based radars.
“A project like IMPACTS can really complement those spacecraft measurements with aircraft measurements that are higher resolution, higher accuracy, sample an event more frequently, and provide additional parameters such as Doppler measurements,” explained John Yorks, one of the deputy principal investigators for IMPACTS.
The second aircraft – the P-3 Orion – will fly at variable altitudes of up to 26,000 feet and will use probes hanging off its wings to measure the size, shape, and distribution of precipitation particles. Flying this aircraft at different altitudes will allow scientists measure snow particles throughout the clouds, as well as the temperature, water vapor, and other conditions in which they form.
Moreover, P-3 Orion will also drop small instruments called dropsondes over the ocean, which, together with weather balloons launched from the ground, will measure temperature, wind, and humidity, and provide crucial information about the atmospheric conditions before, during, and after a storm.
“Snowstorms are really complicated storms, and we need every piece of data – models, aircraft instruments, meteorological soundings – to really figure out what’s going on within these storms,” said Gerry Heymsfield, another deputy principal investigators for IMPACTS.
This data will help the scientists relate the properties of the snow particles and their environment to large-scale processes such as the structure of clouds and precipitation patterns, and thus improve meteorological models and complement the use of satellite data in order to predict how particular storms will develop and what their impact will be.
Today, residents of New England are bracing themselves for possible whiteout conditions, as a nor’easter has brought heavy snowfall and fierce winds to the region. More than 10 million people in coastal areas (all the way down to Virginia) are under blizzard warnings, and some areas may reach record snowfall totals. According to CNN, parts of eastern Massachusetts and Maine could get more than two feet of snow.
John Yorks, one of the deputy principal investigators for IMPACTS at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained that nor’easters travel up the East Coast and can dump several feet of snow, effectively shutting down cities. Being able to predict which areas will get hit the hardest, and with how much snow, could help cities better prepare for severe winter weather.