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No Off Season: Hurricane Hunters spend their winter flying inside atmospheric rivers

A WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron sits on the flightline prior to an atmospheric river mission Jan. 28 at Travis Air Force Base, California.(Airman 1st Class Karla Parra)

A WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron sits on the flightline prior to an atmospheric river mission Jan. 28 at Travis Air Force Base, California.(Airman 1st Class Karla Parra)

Maj. Sonia Walker, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial weather reconnaissance officer, checks her tablet for information during an atmospheric river mission Jan. 28, over the Pacific Ocean. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza)

Maj. Sonia Walker, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial weather reconnaissance officer, checks her tablet for information during an atmospheric river mission Jan. 28, over the Pacific Ocean. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza)

From left to right: Maj. Grant Wagner, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron navigator,  F. Martin Ralph, principal investigator for the Atmospheric River Recon program and director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes and Lt Col. Ryan Rickert, 53rd WRS aerial weather reconnaissance officer, work on a flight plan for the next atmospheric river mission Jan. 30 at San Diego. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza)

From left to right: Maj. Grant Wagner, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron navigator, F. Martin Ralph, principal investigator for the Atmospheric River Recon program and director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes and Lt Col. Ryan Rickert, 53rd WRS aerial weather reconnaissance officer, work on a flight plan for the next atmospheric river mission Jan. 30 at San Diego. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza)

Proposed flight paths for the next atmospheric river missions Jan. 30 at San Diego. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza)

Proposed flight paths for the next atmospheric river missions Jan. 30 at San Diego. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

When the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, commonly known as the Hurricane Hunters, aren't flying into hurricanes they may be found providing aerial weather reconnaissance inside atmospheric rivers - or ARs - over the Pacific Ocean.

"There is no off season for us," said Lt. Col. Ryan Rickert, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance officer. "After the hurricane season is done, we roll into the winter storm season. Part of that is providing support for atmospheric rivers off the West Coast. ARs are flowing columns of water vapor that produce vast amounts of precipitation when they make landfall. The heavy amounts of precipitation can turn into extreme rainfall and snow, which can then cause flooding and mudslides."

The Hurricane Hunters, based at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, performed AR reconnaissance from January through March. They worked in conjunction with scientists
from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service, and the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations to gather data to improve forecasts.

"We're trying to improve the forecast of atmospheric rivers on the West Coast because it matters to the people who manage water and deal with the hazards of flood and debris flows," said F. Martin Ralph, principal investigator for the AR reconnaissance program and director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps. "We're all working together to try and figure out how to make the forecasts better and AR recon's data gathering is a vital part of that."

The Hurricane Hunters flew two of their WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft on missions from Travis Air Force Base, California, Portland, Oregon and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point in Hawaii. A Gulfstream IV from NOAA's Air Operations Center flew missions out of Portland.

"In many cases, ARs are great for the state of California because they bring 90% of the state's annual precipitation," Ralph said. "But when the ground is already saturated and more water is added, it can cause hazards. Knowing what is coming helps people to prepare."

During AR missions, the 53rd WRS crews fly up to 30,000 feet to capture as much atmospheric data as possible. The data compiled by dropsondes can create a vertical profile from the aircraft to the surface of the ocean for the research team and forecasters to input in their models.

"We have somewhat of a void in collecting data over the ocean," said Anna Wilson, field research manager for the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes. "Satellites have trouble seeing through clouds so having an aircraft releasing dropsondes in those areas significantly improves our data and the forecast models. We have a lot of room for accuracy and prediction improvements, and aerial reconnaissance is vital to gathering data from within the atmospheric rivers to help improve our weather models."

ARs can be hundreds of miles wide and are categorized from one to five, with five being the most hazardous.

"The observations gathered by the WC-130J definitely help bridge the gaps in data," Wilson said. "It would be great to have more aircraft because we have found that all the spatial coverage helps make the impact larger which helps predict where an atmospheric river will make landfall."

While the aircraft and aircrews can be staged at different locations, there is an additional team working hand-in-hand with the research team at Scripps in charge of mission development and to coordinate with the aircrews.

"Being on site really helps prevent miscommunications between the research team and the assets the 53rd has to offer," Rickert said.

"As soon as the research team finds an area of interest for weather observations, we immediately start coordinating a flight plan that is feasible for our crews and we make adjustments for times and fuel."

Rickert said gathering data from any weather flight ultimately helps the people on the ground who are going to be affected.

Gathering data from within storm environments is inherently dangerous," he said. "But we perform this service all the same, whether it is flying into a Cat Five hurricane or an AR Five. We collect data in hopes of improving the weather forecast and, in turn, save lives." #ReserveReady

(Carranza is assigned to the 403rd Wing public affairs office.)