Storm Chasers

May 13, 2020 at 5:35pm

Comstock's Magazine, By Russell Nichols

One rainy morning last December, John James stood outside holding a big white balloon, which looked like a perfect target for a lightning strike. Next to him, Carly Ellis, a field researcher with the UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography, asked a group of spectators if they were ready. Then, all together, they counted down: “Five, four, three, two, one.”

Not a second later, James, water operations projects manager for the Yuba Water Agency, released the balloon. “Whew, that went fast!” said an onlooker as the balloon shot up, snatched by the winds, and flew into gray clouds, the attached sensor flapping like a tail.

After a minute or so, the balloon disappeared, but the sensor kept sending data — temperature, pressure, moisture, wind — in real time to researchers on the ground. The balloon would rise until it reached a max altitude of 25,000 meters (15.5 miles), at which point it would pop and a small parachute would deploy, carrying the sensor safely back to the ground, collecting more data on the way down.

The event was the first weather balloon launch from a Yuba Water Agency site near Beale Air Force Base. But it will not be the last. During atmospheric rivers, scientists plan to release a balloon every three hours from this point to collect data. And the more data, the better, because understanding the structure of these storms can help with forecasting and flood control.

“The idea is we’re looking for science to provide answers to managing one of the most precious resources the state has, which is water,” James says months later, as he explains the water management mission to Comstock’s.

“The idea is we’re looking for science to provide answers to managing one of the most precious resources the state has, which is water.”


In winter months, atmospheric rivers (such as Pineapple Express storms, which originate near Hawaii) come barreling in from the Pacific Ocean to batter the Western states. They’re like that unpredictable relative that drops by on short notice: making messes, causing spills, breaking things. Over a 40-year span, these storms caused roughly $1.1 billion in damages annually to California and 10 other western states, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances. 

For decades, flood management involved dumping water from the reservoirs, which usually then flows into rivers toward the ocean, to make space for flood waters. It was a “better safe than sorry” strategy to protect flood-prone areas. But sometimes the rains never came, so that water, which could have been used to supply homes and farms, was lost.

Following the weather balloon launch in Yuba County, 2020 marks the beginning of the field campaign for Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations, or FIRO, a new water management strategy and collaborative effort by various agencies. The idea is that, in the face of climate change, environmental stress and population growth, advanced technology can lead to enhanced weather forecasting, which could make a huge impact in preventing floods and keeping reservoirs full.

‘Forecasts Aren’t Reliable’

Researchers are already using radar aimed at the Sierra Nevada and dropping sensors from military planes above storms in the Pacific Ocean. They will check moisture levels in the soil to see how much is absorbed. Weather balloons have been used for a long time, released by the National Weather Service every 12 hours at sites across the U.S., including three in California. But now, researchers plan to send them up more frequently during storms from strategic sites in the state. With better tools at their disposal, agencies can monitor atmospheric rivers and plan accordingly, says Anna Wilson, field research manager for the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps.

Read more of the original full article here.