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Flights Into The Stratosphere Study Changes To Atmospheric Rivers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Is the global pandemic making you wish you could take a quick break from planet Earth? Our next story will help you do just that. Over the past six months, scientists have been flying high over the Pacific Ocean, into the stratosphere to study weather phenomena called atmospheric rivers. These rivers in the sky can deliver huge amounts of rain and snow to the west coast. And they may be getting more intense. NPR's Nathan Rott joined them for a flight.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Confession - I don't always pay attention to pre-flight briefings, you know, the whole insert buckle, tighten seat belt thing. But most flights don't have emergency masks with compressed air...

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR BLASTING)

ROTT: ...Pressure you'll need, flight coordinator Rich Henning says, because if something goes wrong above 40,000 feet...

RICH HENNING: The air gets sucked out of your lungs.

ROTT: OK. He's got my full attention. Henning, like just about everyone else on this flight, works for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They're wearing Smurf-blue flight suits with patches that read hurricane hunter, because these are the folks that fly through hurricanes when it's that time of the year. This flight, far over the northeast Pacific Ocean...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE HUMMING)

ROTT: ...Shouldn't be nearly as bumpy because collecting data on atmospheric rivers is a little less invasive. Instead of flying through the band of moisture, we'll fly over it at about 41.000 feet, just shy of where you can see the curvature of the Earth. The weather event we're studying is far below. But let's have the expert on the jet explain, starting with, you know, what the heck is an atmospheric river?

ANNA WILSON: Yeah. Sure. So they're basically, like, a river in the sky, which is why that named

ROTT: Anna Wilson is with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

WILSON: So it's sort of a long, narrow corridor of strong moisture transport, so lots of water vapor and lots of winds, mostly at low levels.

ROTT: Water vapor that starts in the humid tropics and then snakes its way across the ocean until it hits a landmass, like a river hitting a dam. That collision can be good in that it brings much-needed water to places like California. But it can also be bad, because when Wilson says lots of water vapor, she means lots.

WILSON: An atmospheric river, on average, can transport as much water as 25 Mississippi Rivers.

ROTT: Atmospheric rivers are to blame for flooding events in California, Washington and Oregon just about every year. And scientists expect strong ones to increase in frequency with a warming climate, similar to hurricanes. It's because warmer air can hold more water, hence the need to better understand them.

HENNING: One minute.

ROTT: With Henning coordinating over the radio, two NOAA engineers at the back of the jet ready a piece of data-collecting equipment called a dropsonde.

JEFF HARTBERGER: Yeah. You see the packing tape we put on there?

WILSON: Oh, yeah.

ROTT: The dropsonde in Jeff Hartberger's hand is about the size and shape of two soda cans stacked on top of each other. He loads it into a chute near the back of the jet, careful not to touch the exposed sensors on its top.

HENNING: Standby.

ROTT: Another engineer, Stephen Paul (ph), readies a release switch.

HENNING: Release sonde now.

ROTT: Paul flips a switch...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE VALVE OPENING)

ROTT: ...And the valve on the bottom of the plane opens, sucking the sensor out and ripping open a parachute.

HENNING: Looks good.

ROTT: The sensor will fall for more than 15 minutes through the atmospheric river below, beaming back data along the way - data that will be used to improve weather forecasts immediately, and data that will help scientists better understand atmospheric rivers into the future.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLAR HEAVY'S "THE FALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.