New system for aircraft forecasts potential storm hazards over oceans

Dec 11, 2012
A new online system, developed by an NCAR-led research team, provides eight-hour forecasts of major storms over much of the world's oceans. The prototype system can help transoceanic flights avoid potentially dangerous atmospheric conditions. Credit: UCAR

(Phys.org)—The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) has developed a prototype system to help flights avoid major storms as they travel over remote ocean regions. The 8-hour forecasts of potentially dangerous atmospheric conditions are designed for pilots, air traffic controllers, and others involved in transoceanic flights.

The NCAR-based system, developed with funding from NASA's Applied Sciences Program, combines satellite data and computer to produce maps of storms over much of the world's oceans. The system is based on products that NCAR has developed to alert pilots and about storms and related hazards, such as turbulence and lightning, over the continental United States.

Development of the forecasts was spurred in part by the 2009 crash of Flight 447, which encountered a complex of thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean. NCAR worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, the , and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create the system.

"These new forecasts can help fill an important gap in our aviation system," says NCAR's Cathy Kessinger, the lead researcher on the project. "Pilots have had limited information about atmospheric conditions as they fly over the ocean, where conditions can be severe. By providing them with a picture of where significant storms will be during an eight-hour period, the system can contribute to both the safety and comfort of passengers on flights over the ocean."

The forecasts, which continue to be tested and modified, can be viewed here. They cover most of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, where NCAR has real-time access to geostationary satellite data. The forecasts are updated every three hours.

Flying with limited information

Pilots of transoceanic flights currently get preflight briefings and, in certain cases involving especially intense storms, in-flight weather updates every four hours. They also have onboard radar.

The information, however, is of limited value for strategic flight planning while en route. Pinpointing turbulence associated with storms over the oceans is far more challenging than over land because geostationary satellites, unlike ground-based radar, cannot see within the clouds. Thunderstorms may develop quickly and move rapidly, rendering the briefings and weather updates obsolete. Onboard radars lack the power to see long distances or through dense clouds.

As a result, pilots often must choose between detouring hundreds of miles around potentially stormy areas or flying through a region that may or may not contain intense weather. Storms may be associated with hazardous windshear and icing conditions, in addition to lightning, hail, and potentially severe turbulence.

"Turbulence is the leading cause of injuries in commercial aviation," says John Haynes, Applied Sciences Program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This is of crucial importance to pilots and is another demonstration of the practical benefit of NASA's Earth observations."

To create the forecasts, Kessinger and her colleagues first turned to geostationary satellite measurements to identify regions of the atmosphere that met two conditions: particularly high cloud tops and water vapor at high altitudes. Those two conditions are a sign of strong updrafts that can buffet an aircraft and are also correlated with powerful storms. They then used fuzzy logic and data fusion techniques to home in on storms of particular concern, and applied object tracking techniques and simulations of wind fields to predict storm locations at hourly intervals out to eight hours.

Researchers verified the forecasts using observations from the NASA Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite.

"These advanced techniques enable us to inform pilots about the potential for violent downdrafts and turbulence, even over the middle of the ocean where we don't have land-based radar or other tools to observe storms in detail," Kessinger says.

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