Hurricane Hunters fly first missions of winter season

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

The Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters” at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., flew a system from its time as a swath of water vapor moving over the Pacific Ocean to the wintry conditions it delivered across the United States, marking the unit’s first atmospheric river and winter storm missions of the season in support of the National Winter Season Operations Plan.

The unit flew its first Atmospheric River mission of the year Jan. 9 out of Mather Airport in Sacramento, Calif., as a system moved across the Pacific Ocean towards the west coast.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics. These columns carry an amount of water vapor roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River and often release this water vapor in the form of rain or snow upon landfall.

“For these atmospheric river missions we try to fly them at as high of an altitude as feasible—which is typically in the 30,000 foot range--in order to get the largest vertical swath of the system’s atmospheric conditions as possible,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy DeHart, aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the 53rd. “Our winter missions, atmospheric river and winter storm flights, differ a lot from hurricane missions in that they aren’t as readily observed with satellites and other instruments like for a tropical system, so we rely on dropsondes in order to collect as much data and information as possible in what would normally be a very data sparse region.”

The crews deployed to Mather continued to fly the system for the next few days dropping anywhere from 25 to 30 dropsondes per 9-10 hour flight, he said.

“What we’re really trying to do is initialize the global models and give them a sense of what the atmosphere is doing in order to help them better forecast these atmospheric river events and then of course any potential downstream events as well,” DeHart said. “These missions are a little newer, but they’ve become a bigger focus in the last few years due to the impacts they have for the West Coast and how they affect water management and resources.”

Once the AR reached land, the system began its trek across the continent. Over 2,000 miles from Mather, at Keesler, the 53rd was alerted for a possible winter storm flight for Jan. 16 into that same system.

For winter storm missions, the squadron receives taskings from the National Centers for Environmental Protection.

“We only flew the one flight and it was one of our fixed winter storm paths that we fly, this one in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Capt. Gabriel Donndelinger, ARWO for the 53rd. “We were flying the tail-end of the storm collecting data for forecasters to better predict the timing of the storm as it moved into the Southeast as well as intensity.”

The major winter storm affected millions as it brought snow and ice across the Midwest and East Coast as well as parts of the South.

“Just like with our hurricane reconnaissance, this data is important for forecasters so that both residents and local governments can prepare accordingly,” he said. “It’s especially important for scenarios like this one where areas not prone to wintry weather conditions are able to have as much notice as possible to make arrangements.”

The NWSOP lasts from November through April, so the Hurricane Hunters will remain ready at Keesler for winter storm taskings and continue to stage at Mather for AR recon through early March.