Hurricane Harvey offers unprecedented data for NSSL researcher

As Hurricane Harvey came ashore along the Texas coast, NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory Researcher Sean Waugh managed to do what no one has done before — he launched a weather balloon in the eye of the hurricane. The data recorded by the balloon’s instruments as it circled Harvey’s eyewall were record-breaking and confusing, and will require time and research to explain.

“This was the first observation of its kind,” Waugh said. “No one has ever seen this type of data, some of the values are exceptionally high and we are still trying to determine what those values mean.”

An image of the observations NOAA NSSL Researcher Sean Waugh saw after launching a weather balloon in the eye of the hurricane. (Photo by Sean Waugh/NOAA NSSL)

The eyewall is the edge of the eye of the hurricane — the strongest area of the storm. Two measurements from the balloon launch were particularly interesting. The first was a wind profile that produced computed values higher than ever observed, indicating its use in these circumstances may not be correct. The second, a measurement of potential rain, was also extreme, and may have been an early indication of the unprecedented flooding produced by Harvey.

The NOAA NSSL mobile mesonet in Texas before Hurricane Harvey came ashore. (Photo by Sean Waugh/NOAA NSSL)

The balloon launch was one part of Waugh’s efforts to collect data in the path of Hurricane Harvey. From a truck with roof mounted instruments called a mobile mesonet, he recorded observations of rain, wind, temperature and humidity for an extended period of time.

Gathering the data was not a task for the faint of heart. Before and after the balloon launch, Waugh experienced high winds — nearly 100 miles per hour — while sitting in the heavy mobile mesonet truck.

Waugh coordinated on this project with scientists from The University of Oklahoma College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. The university team collected data with their radar-equipped truck.

Over time, Waugh hopes to better understand this unprecedented data set, and how it can contribute to a greater understanding of hurricanes and the tornadoes they produce.

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NSSL stages equipment near Hurricane Harvey

NSSL Researcher Sean Waugh with the mobile mesonet. (Photo provided)

NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory Researcher Sean Waugh will collect weather data in the path of Hurricane Harvey Friday to record how the landfalling hurricane changes as it develops.

The first major hurricane forecast to make landfall in the Gulf Coast in 12 years provides an opportunity to study its development and any potential development of tornadoes.

“While tornadoes are relatively rare in environments associated with landfalling hurricanes, if they occur they can have large impacts,” Waugh said.

Waugh will use a truck with roof mounted instruments called a mobile mesonet to record observations of Hurricane Harvey for an extended period of time. The instruments and weather balloons will record rain, wind and temperature. He will work with scientists from The University of Oklahoma College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. The team is utilizing the university’s Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies SMART radar truck.

Researchers will monitor how the hurricane’s structure changes during landfall as well as temperature changes and wind on the surface. Scientists will test a  new instrument developed at NSSL that measures rain size and distribution to help with flood forecasts. Information gathered will be shared with National Weather Service forecasters.

NOAA NSSL and partners are studying the development of tornadoes in the Southeast U.S. in order to improve their prediction through  VORTEX-Southeast.

For more information about Hurricane Harvey and the current forecast:

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NSSL researchers measure eclipse effects

NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory research scientist Sean Waugh uses an instrumented truck to measure the atmosphere while he prepares a weather balloon for launch earlier this year in Kansas. He will do the same thing on Aug. 21 in Nebraska during the total solar eclipse.
(Photo by Matthew Mahalik/OU CIMMS and NOAA NSSL)

The total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 offers a unique opportunity for researchers from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Oklahoma State University to study sudden, drastic changes in the Earth’s lower atmosphere caused by a loss of sunlight.

“This is a rare circumstance,” said Sean Waugh, research meteorologist with NSSL. “We don’t know what sort of effects on temperature and winds an eclipse might have.”

Waugh will drive to a location in southern Nebraska and park in the path of totality. From the start of the eclipse through its completion, weather instruments mounted to the roof of the NSSL truck will automatically measure surface temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, pressure and solar radiation every second.

Next to the truck about every 30 minutes, Waugh will launch weather balloons with instruments attached to take the same atmospheric measurements in a vertical profile through the lower part of the atmosphere. These weather balloons are used by the National Weather Service daily, and can reach altitudes up to about 80,000 feet.

At the same time, Adam Houston, associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and collaborators from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, will fly two Unmanned Aerial Systems. The UNL Matrice, operated by University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will measure temperature, moisture and pressure. The DJI Matric 600 operated by Oklahoma State University will measure wind speed and direction, along with temperature, moisture and pressure.

The UNL Matrice, operated by University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will measure temperature, moisture and pressure. The DJI Matric 600 operated by Oklahoma State University will measure the same things as well as wind speed and direction. (Photo provided)

“It will be good to combine different platforms and take the same observations in different ways,” Waugh said. “These measurements will increase our understanding of what an eclipse will do and what sort of effects it can have on our surface weather conditions.”

In addition to documenting the surface temperature and wind changes caused by the eclipse, the data will be used later to validate predictions from and refine an experimental version of the High Resolution Rapid Refresh short-term weather model run by the NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory’s Global Systems Division in Boulder, Colorado.

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What’s it like to work at a museum?

NSSL’s Dave Rust, Sean Waugh, and Susan Cobb spent two weeks at the San Francisco Exploratorium science museum as part of a NOAA Environmental Literacy grant to introduce staff and visitors to weather science.  The following is a description of how a just a portion of time was spent, from Susan’s perspective.

Whirring, clanking,  buzzing.  It’s Monday, and though the SFO Exploratorium is closed, the world-renowned museum of science, art and human perception still hums with activity.

“If you break it, it’s our fault,” proclaims the staff proudly.  Intended to be a completely “hands-on, play with it, figure it out” type of experience, each exhibit is designed to be durable.  There are few placards telling you what to do.

NSSL scientists were part of a unique NOAA education grant to educate SFO Exploratorium visitors about severe weather science.  The project involved a week of orientation and planning in the fall, and two weeks in the spring.  During those weeks we had a key to the museum, which made me a little giddy.  Who gets a key to a museum?

Weather is not currently addressed at the Exploratorium, not directly anyway.  We could show atmospheric movements in the “Fluid Trough,” and how thunderstorms form in the “Convection Currents” display.  But in a year, the Exploratorium will be moving from their current site at the Palace of Fine Arts not far from the Golden Gate Bridge, to Pier 15 on the Embarcadero.  There they WILL have a weather observatory, and NOAA has had a role in helping brainstorm ways to showcase weather.

“We can run around in it?”  The ‘tornado machine’ immediately draws hands into its vortex of water vapor.  Parents hold their children back until Exploratorium staff assures them it is okay.  “Run around in it!  Stand over the vent.  Block the airflow.  What happens?”  An “Explainer” approaches with a bottle of bubbles and gently blows the bubbles into the funnel.  Some get flung outwards towards the squeals of the children.  Some rise up into the tube until they pop.

“What is it?”

“What do you think it is?”

“A tornado?”

“Yeah!  An upside down tornado. How do you think it works?”  We introduce them to moisture, rising air, ingredients for a thunderstorm.  “What makes it spin?”

We move on to shear.  “Feel the air coming out of those holes.  Which direction is it going?  How about over here?  And at that other column? Do you know, we study tornadoes where I work?”

“Really?  How?  Why?”

“Well, we don’t really know how tornadoes start.  I mean, we know what makes a big monster thunderstorm start to turn, but we don’t really know what makes that huge storm concentrate that energy into a smaller funnel.”

“Oh!  I know!”  A six year old sits next to me at the tornado machine and spends ten minutes explaining his theory on tornado formation.  “The storm gets a lot of energy and pushes it together and explodes into a tornado!”  This was the abridged version, but he went on to talk about how Zeus and Thor had roles too.  He was from Italy.

“Oh!  We just saw Tornado Alley at the IMAX theater!”

“Did you see that car over there in the movie?”

“Oh yes!”

“We take cars like that and drive them into storms!  That one has hail dents the size of BASEBALLS!  See that stuff on top?  Those are weather instruments so we can measure the storm as we drive through.  How else do you think we could study storms? They’re kind of big and dangerous so we have to be clever.”

“Could you fly through the storm?”

“Well, we do sometimes, but it’s bumpy and dangerous.”

Puzzled looks.

“Well, see that big plastic bag up there?  It is a huge weather balloon!  We attach instruments to it and fly it into the storm!  Wanna see a launch?  See this instrument?  What do you see?  It got struck by LIGHTNING while it was attached to that balloon! Do you wanna know what these instruments do?”

“Whoa!  That’s so cool!”

“I’m from Joplin,”  said another visitor.  We went on to talk what happened May 22, 2011.  Her eyes were haunted.  “A tornado has come too close to me before. I took shelter.  I don’t know why others didn’t.”

“Well we are looking into that problem right now.  We have meteorologists and social scientists, emergency managers and engineers all talking about ways to solve it.”

“Oh, I am so glad to hear that.  Please keep doing this work.”

“Those are the clouds over the earth right now?”

“Yup!  This is called Living Earth, an app on the iPad.  Do you see any curly ques?”

“I see a curly que!”

“Yeah!  That’s a storm!  Over Antarctica!  Let’s see what it looks like there right now.  Oh!  There IS a storm!  Look how snowy it is!  But here is another place in Antarctica away from the storm.  See the icebergs?”

“Those are icebergs right now?”

“Yup!  Wanna see a volcano?  This is Kilauea in Hawaii.  See the smoke?  If you check back at night, you can see it glow!”

I knew I had connected when one in a crowd of first graders put her hand on my shoulder (I was sitting on the floor with them), and asked if she could tell me a story about weather.

“Of course!”

The Exploratorium has been hesitant to delve into the world of technology, including iPads, to enhance the visual experience.  But I think we showed how it could work.  From sharing photos of tornadoes, lightning or clouds, to YouTube videos of balloon launches or live current radar where severe weather was occurring, people were fascinated.  Many adults would get out a piece of paper and write down the names of the apps I would show them.

“Do you have any games on your iPad?” from a little boy.

Well, okay, not everyone.

I sometimes stood near the “cloud in a bottle” demonstration.  Increasing the air pressure in a clear soda bottle with some water in it, and releasing the pressure to produce a little puff of vapor can hardly compete with the popular cow eye dissection that occurs most days on the hour.  But it was fun to connect the cloud demonstration with what was happening outside.  Don’t remember what the sky was like before you came in?  There’s an app for that!  Let’s look!

But that was just a small part of our time.  Mornings, even on the weekends, were spent conducting “trainings.”  These were special sessions with floor staff called “Explainers” who facilitate the visitor experience.  During these times, we would share our knowledge and experience, and answer their questions.  They will translate this new knowledge to visitors after our residency was over.

Where’s Dave?  The training was set to start at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, with our retired storm electricity scientist showing how to use the Van De Graff generator to explain lightning.  9:40 a.m.  Hmmm.  Our hostess is missing too.  Daylight Savings time had left me in front of a roomful of teenagers.  Alone!  I wasn’t going to tackle atmospheric electricity on my own, but I did have some questions.  I’ve always wanted to work at a science museum.  How in the world did these teenagers score this gig?

So I asked.

“My brother did it first.  He loved it.”

“Really?” said their manager.  “I didn’t know that!”

“I like science.”

“It sounded cool.”

“How did you, Susan Cobb, get into your career?”

“Well, the Wizard of Oz.”

“What?!? No way!”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Marine biologist.”

“Environmental scientist.”

“Science teacher.”

More than two thirds of the room wanted to pursue a career in science.  But their enthusiasm was measured.  Dave finally arrived.

“Will you give me a job?” one said.

“Do well in school,” was Dave’s fatherly answer.

“My kid loves weather!  What did you have to study?”

“Math, lots of math.”

“Oh.  He’s not good at math.”

“That’s okay, neither was I.”

“But you still did it?”

“Yes, the only thing I have ever wanted to do was be a meteorologist.”

“You need to talk to my son.  Let me find him.  Will you still be here?”

“What’s that?”

“Radar.  I am looking to see if the rain is going to stop today in SFO.  What do you think?  Which way is it moving?  What do the colors mean?  Why are their pinks and blues over here?  What?  Snow in the Sierras?  Let’s check the webcam at Lake Tahoe!”

The clang of a loud dinner bell gives the signal that the museum is closing for the day.  The high school explainer team herds visitors toward the exits and shut down exhibits.  Opening people’s eyes to the world around them.  Making them curious about weather and weather phenomena.  Sparking their interest in science.  Answering their questions.  Showing them research matters.  Giving me confidence I do know something worth sharing.  That’s what the NOAA Scientist in Residence program did for me.

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NOAA researchers share science of storms at San Francisco Exploratorium

A team from NSSL will be NOAA Scientists in Residence at the world-renowned San Francisco Exploratorium science museum from March 8-25, 2012.  During the event, “Rain in the Air:  The Science of Storms,” the team will offer Exploratorium staff and visitors a behind the scenes look at the tools, techniques and people behind the effort to better understand severe storms.

NSSL retired researcher Dave Rust will share his thunderstorm electricity expertise and his skill at creating weather measuring instruments. Dave pioneered the use of free-flying balloons and mobile laboratories to make observations, significantly advancing thunderstorm science.

Susan Cobb is a meteorologist and science writer for NSSL, and her experience includes international forecasting, and writing about weather science for all audiences. Susan will work with visitors to understand, experience and forecast weather in the San Francisco area and around the world.

Sean Waugh is a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma and an instrumentation specialist working with the NSSL.  He helped design and build seven Mobile Mesonets, storm research cars outfitted with weather instruments, computers, and communications equipment. Sean will give personal tours of the Mobile Mesonet and focus on ways NSSL collects data to learn more about storms.

Cobb and Waugh will give presentations on current NSSL research at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, 2012 in the McBean Theater.

The partnership is the result of a five-year educational grant with NOAA to co-develop interactive exhibits, learning experiences and professional development workshops for the learning institution.

The NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory’s mission to improve our knowledge of severe
weather and to develop new tools to better forecast and warn of its hazards has endured since its establishment in 1964.

The Exploratorium first opened in 1969 and welcomes more than 500,000 visitors each year.

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NSSL partners with San Francisco’s Exploratorium

Rust and Waugh
Retired NSSL scientist Dave Rust, and OU/CIMMS/NSSL grad student Sean Waugh look at a static electricity exhibit with Exploratorium staff.

A team from NSSL spent a week at the world-renowned San Francisco Exploratorium to work with staff as part of the NOAA Scientist in Residence program.  The Exploratorium is a unique museum dedicated to unstructured exploration and discovery of science and art.

NSSL retired researcher Dave Rust led the team and shared his expertise as an observational scientist and creator of observation platforms.  Rust, along with NSSL/CIMMS’s Sean Waugh and Susan Cobb brainstormed with staff to develop demonstrations, experiments and exhibits on weather and severe weather.  They also gave presentations on NSSL and their research and worked with “explainers” who serve as guides in the museum.  Part of the time was spent discussing new ideas for an outdoor observatory to be located at the Exploratorium’s new location on Pier 15, opening in 2013.

The team will return in late Winter 2012 for two weeks to share NOAA NSSL research with Exploratorium visitors.

The partnership is the result of a five-year educational grant with NOAA to co-develop interactive exhibits, online learning experiences and professional development workshops for the learning institution.

The Exploratorium first opened in 1969 and welcomes more than 500,000 visitors each year.

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