By Lizz Giordano
The weather research teams waited anxiously for the nighttime storms to appear over the Great Plains. Scientists know very little about how the storms form but they do know how the rainfall from these storms sustains lives, property, agriculture and water resources. So the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and more than 100 scientists gathered this summer in Kansas with truckloads of gear to study nocturnal thunderstorms that bring a majority of the summer rainfall to the Great Plains.
Daytime and nighttime storms require the same components to form. But at night, after the sun sets, the ground cools and the air becomes more stable. This creates conditions that are less favorable for the formation of thunderstorm. Convection – the instability of warm air rising and cool air sinking – is key to thunderstorm formation. With the Plains Elevated Convection at Night (PECAN), project scientists are learning what triggers these nighttime storms.
I had a front row seat to the action, spending countless nights in the field with different weather research teams. I captured their search made with weather balloons, hurricane planes and mobile radar trucks.
(Click on any photo to begin the slideshow.)
Researchers parked their mobile weather radars from the University of Oklahoma and NOAA in a hotel parking lot in Lincoln, Nebraska. They collected storm data late into the night for the Plains Elevated Convection At Night (PECAN) weather research project.
NOAA meteorologists Kim Elmore, right, and Don Burgess begin set-up for a mobile radar unit outside of Hays, Kansas. This was part of the weather research project studying how nocturnal thunderstorms evolve and what turns some of them into severe storms.
Recent University of Oklahoma graduate Kevin Hansen checks the weather radar while waiting for a large storm to approach a site near Burlington, Illinois, during the PECAN project. The majority of the rain during the summer in the Great Plains falls during nocturnal thunderstorms and scientists hope to learn more about them through this field project.
University of Oklahoma graduate student Liz Smith assembles a mobile weather station outside of the trailer for the Collaborative Lower Atmospheric Mobile Profiling System (CLAMPS). The system is a joint project of the University of Oklahoma and National Severe Storms Lab. This was one of the many mobile weather units gathering data duirng the PECAN project, a summer research project to better predict how severe storms form over the Great Plains.
National Severe Storms Lab atmospheric scientist Dave Turner and graduate student Liz Smith launch a weather balloon while collecting data near Wallace, Nebraska, for the PECAN project. Scientists have a good understanding how daytime thunderstorms work, but little is known about how nighttime storms form and evolve.
The transportable S-Pol radar, brought from Colorado for the PECAN project, takes 10 days to set-up. It was used to fill in gaps from nearby National Weather Station Radars.
The transportable S-Pol radar is set near Hays, Kansas, for the PECAN project. The S-Pol is an advanced, transportable, ground-based, dual-polarimetric, dual-wavelength, Doppler weather radar.
Duane Wolfe prepares a weather balloon at the National Weather Service office in Dodge City, Kansas. The 122 offices scattered across the United States are responsible for issuing weather warnings for their region.
Wolfe launches a weather balloon at the National Weather Service office in Dodge City Kansas. The classic balloon is paired with a cutting edge technical payload remains at the forefront of weather forecasting. The National Weather Service launches weather balloons at 92 locations twice a day. The data collected is sent to the National Weather Office and plugged into weather models that create forecasts.
Wolfe watches the computer collect data from the weather balloon he just launched at the National Weather Service office in Dodge City Kansas. Weather balloons collect upper air observations, which are crucial for predicting storms and other severe weather.
Retired forecaster Dave Imy hand draws a weather map at the start of his shift for the PECAN weather project. Scientists are studying storms to make better forecasts in the future. But they need to first forecast where thunderstorms will be to collect data.
Retired forecaster Dave Imy, left and graduate Sean Stelten prepare a forecast presentation for PECAN researchers at headquarters on the Fort Hays State University campus in Hays, Kansas. For a few weeks during the middle of the project a dome of heat refused to budge over Hays and other parts of the state, resulting in disappointing forecasts with no nighttime storms for scientists to study.
The NOAA P-3 aircraft, also known as the Hurricane Hunter, sits on a runway in Salina, Kansas, as the crew of pilots and scientists prepare for the night’s weather research flight.
Weather research scientists collect data during a research flight on the NOAA P-3, tracking a thunderstorm over the Texas Panhandle. The aircraft has seats for 19 people – 12 crew, seven scientists and one journalist on this trip.
Pilots in the cockpit of the NOAA P-3 aircraft, also known as the Hurricane Hunter, prepare for takeoff. The aircraft, usually used to fly into hurricanes, did double duty to study elevated thunderstorms for the PECAN project.
A weather balloon is launched from a farmer’s field in northern Kansas on the last night of the PECAN project. The last night brought a perfect storm that contained all objectives scientists wanted to study during the project to better understand storm triggers.
Scientists in headquarters direct field teams during a busy night for PECAN project scientists in Hays, Kansas. Scientists know much about the formation of daytime thunderstorms. But after the sun sets, the earth begins to cool and the atmosphere becomes more stable. This creates a less favorable atmosphere for supporting thunderstorms. Through this project, scientists hope to learn what triggers these nocturnal storms to form.
Photo at top: Researchers parked their mobile weather radars from the University of Oklahoma and NOAA in a hotel parking lot in Lincoln, Nebraska. They collected storm data late into the night for the Plains Elevated Convection At Night (PECAN) weather research project. (Lizz Giordano/Medill)
Lizz Giordano joined the research teams as a Medill embedded reporting scholar. The scholarships are supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corp. of New York.