The workshop looks like a miniature Home Depot -- an organized clutter of soldering guns, wires, and voltage meters. Shelves are stacked with assorted weather instrument packages, antennas, and CB radios. Helium tanks used to fill weather balloons line the walls under whiteboards with concept drawings of instruments. The National Severe Storms Laboratory’s shop and vehicle bay on the ground floor of the National Weather Center in Norman, Okla., is where creativity takes shape and inventions are born.
The ability to get up-close and personal with thunderstorms is critical to NSSL’s mission to understand severe weather. NSSL’s Field Observing Facilities and Support (FOFS) team is a small, talented group of problem-solvers who work hard to come up with clever ways to measure storms.
“The vast majority of what we know about severe storms we've learned through field observations,” said Dave Jorgensen, leader of the FOFS team. “To collect those data sets, particularly at high resolution, requires the highly diverse expertise of many individuals, physicists and engineers to design and build the instruments, technicians to maintain and operate them, computer experts to built analysis techniques, and meteorologists and other scientists to interpret the data.”
Anyone need bench seats from a minivan? The vehicle bay shelves are lined with extras, removed to make way for weather instruments. FOFS’s Sherman Frederickson was part of the team that designed and built the first Mobile Mesonets, a.k.a. “probes;” minivans with a suite of weather instruments attached to the luggage rack on top and a cargo of computer equipment inside. Frederickson is a meteorologist and NSSL’s resident instrumentation expert.
The hoods of the probes usually boast large hail dents, “battle scars” to the scientists who drive them through storms to make measurements of temperature, pressure, humidity, and winds. The instrument rack brings the clearance height of the probe to 11 feet; the FOFS team reminds scientists to be wary of areas of low clearance, including drive-in restaurants.
Interested in studying lightning? NSSL’s FOFS team installed and maintains the Oklahoma Lightning Mapping Array (OKLMA). Thousands of points can be mapped for an individual lightning flash, to reveal its location and the development of its structure. NSSL scientists hope to learn more about how storms produce intra-cloud and cloud-to-ground flashes and how each type is related to tornadoes and other severe weather. Doug Kennedy and Dennis Nealson were recently in southwest Oklahoma to finish the installation of seven new stations in the OKLMA, bringing the total count to 18.
Is there a way to keep track of all these vehicles in the field? Yes, in fact, there is! Kennedy along with NSSL scientists developed a wireless network that collects real-time weather observations during field experiments from the instrumented vehicles and aircraft that are all equipped with GPS. The data are gathered at a centrally located mobile command post (an ambulance in a former life). Radar images and geotagged weather data are then uplinked via satellite and sent through the Internet to laptops in each of the vehicles that have special software to map the information. Researchers can track the weather, and each other. During the 2009-2010 Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, or VORTEX II, this capability was critical to coordinate the 40 research vehicles simultaneously intercepting a storm. Kennedy was busy visiting each vehicle in the field to install software updates and problem solve as needed in the field.
Got weather balloons? Yup, those too. A 40-foot clear balloon capable of carrying loads up to 12 pounds is draped across the ceiling. It turns out ambulances are perfect mobile laboratories, too – another was retrofitted to hold helium tanks, small packages of weather instruments, electric field meters, balloon launch tubes and the balloons themselves.
“There is always something interesting going on in the shop,” said University of Oklahoma graduate student Sean Waugh who works closely with Frederickson on his experimental “particle imager.” They designed and built the prototype instrument out of a funnel, PVC pipe, and flashlight with an HD video camera and GPS safely tucked away in Styrofoam. They’ve added a laser disdrometer to the package to measure the number of particles, and even their size and velocity. The camera documents whether the particles are ice, rain, or soft hail. The imager is attached to a balloon, along with other instruments, and is launched into the updraft of a thunderstorm.
“NSSL had a significant milestone on Saturday, May 19 2012,” said Jorgensen. “We launched our first balloon-borne disdrometer and collected particle size data and video through a thunderstorm.” Three mobile radars were scanning the thunderstorm and research aircraft were sampling the surrounding atmosphere at the same time.
The successfully coordinated data collection occurred as part of the Deep Convective Clouds and Chemistry (DC3) experiment, a comprehensive field project to measure how thunderstorms transport, produce and process chemicals that form ozone. NSSL is providing a mobile Doppler radar, balloon launch facilities, four probes, and a lightning mapping array, along with members of the FOFS team.
This means FOFS is ready for quick at-home and in-the-field repairs. Screwdrivers, electrical tape, fuses, spare cameras, packing tape, nylon line, zip ties, memory cards and of course, duct tape are stocked into tubs and loaded into the vehicles. When DC3 is over, their work isn’t done. Tune-ups on the vehicles, swapping out instruments for the next project, repairing and ordering supplies, and making researchers’ ideas a reality is all in a day’s work.
“These teams of experts have enabled NSSL to maintain its reputation as the world leaders in understanding severe weather processes as well as building systems to better forecast and warn the general public about hazardous storms,” Jorgensen said.
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