High-speed jet keeps eye on West Coast storms

WASHINGTON - The same type of high-speed jet that chases hurricanes will now be flying over remote stretches of the North Pacific to gather data on weather conditions that produce the powerful winter storms that slam into the West Coast.

The plane, a highly specialized, high-altitude, high-speed Gulfstream IV aircraft operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will be based at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan through February and fly into “data sparse” regions checking wind speeds and direction, barometric pressure, temperature and humidity. Via satellite, the information will be relayed to global operation forecasting centers and fed into computer forecast models.

The information should help meteorologists predict the incoming weather on the West Coast and points farther east.

“These flights will help us better observe and understand the current state of the atmosphere over the Pacific where most of North America’s weather originates, in order to better predict future conditions across the U.S. and Canada three to six days in advance,” Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said in a statement.

The flights provide detailed data on developing Pacific storms unavailable elsewhere. Weather satellites can’t provide the same level of detail.

Last year, the Japan-based flights, part of the Winter Storms Reconnaissance program, flew 332 flight hours, logging miles equivalent to five trips around the globe. Previously, the planes flew out of Alaska, Hawaii and the West Coast, but NOAA said by extending the missions beyond the International Date Line, it was providing better forecasting information.

The earlier missions helped refine forecasting models to provide more accurate and longer lead times for major storms. NOAA said the newer forecasting models for precipitation have improved 10 percent to 15 percent.

“It is critical that those of us who live in the path of potentially deadly Pacific storms have the best weather predictions possible,” said Sen, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chairman of the Senate’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee. “Deploying this plane over the Pacific Ocean will improve forecasting of winter storms that have historically hit Washington state hard, enabling residents to be better prepared and potentially saving lives.”

Cantwell’s office said this year’s flights are for the first time focused on the Pacific storms while earlier plane flights out of Japan focused on collecting other data.

The Pacific flights come as the National Weather Service nears a decision on where to locate a new weather radar on the Washington coast, the only coastal area in the United States currently without such coverage. The $9 million radar system should be operational in 2012.

Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008