Stalking the storm: Bombs away

Commander Jeff Hagan is reflected in the window of the cockpit at 41000 feet in the Jet Stream during a NOAA Winter Storms Reconnaisance mission over the North Pacific on Thursday morning, March 11, 2010. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

Over the North Pacific, where nature harbors some of its most-dangerous secrets, Charles Lynch is in the rear of a jet dropping bombs from 45,000 feet.

The "bombs" in this case are instrument packs, roughly the size of a paper-towel dowel, that are relaying wind, pressure and temperature data every half-second, from the high atmosphere all the way to the Earth's surface.

That data, in turn, is being relayed for use by computers all over the world for use in the models that forecast the weather.

The mission is to find out what mayhem the atmosphere has in mind today, tomorrow, next week.

The models depend on observations. They can't figure out what the atmosphere is going to do if they don't know what's happening now.

Those initial observations often are their Achilles heels.

And the North Pacific, one of the world's most-productive and dangerous storm factories, is one of the most-difficult places on Earth to obtain detailed weather observations.

That's why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is dispatching high-altitude flights to collect data in a fashion resembling an upside-down weather balloon. NOAA sends up planes every three or four days, sometimes every day, depending on what's out there.

The target area today is a Q-tip shape region ballooning from about 400 miles northeast of Honolulu out to about 1,600 miles, or roughly halfway to Alaska.

The jet is stalking a nasty looking, dragon-tail shaped cold front that is slamming into Northern California.

At a pre-flight briefing, meteorologist Jess Williams, a 27-year-old Willow Grove native, warns that this thing might end up bringing more heavy rain to the Philadelphia area early next week. She says this with all the calm of a flight attendant.

So far, the flight has encountered only minor turbulence, and Lynch, a NOAA engineer, has dropped four instrument bombs, with 12 more drops scheduled during the next several hours.

Later in the day, Williams says we will likely pass over jet-stream winds over 130 m.p.h. She said that's down from yesterday's 200 m.p.h.-plus.

The jet stream is crucial to the movement and development of storms.

The Category 5 hurricane-force winds can ignite storms -- think of the lifting effect of stiff winds passing over a smoking chimney.

In addtion, this torrents of air are the high speed highways that can take storms across the ocean, and across the country.

By the way, don't worry about the whales. The probes are light enough to be harmless on impact.