Weather Forecasting

Still an inexact science—especially vital in terms of water—but this article from Comstock’s Magazine reports on potential improvements.

An excerpt.

“One rainy morning last December, John James stood outside holding a big white balloon, which looked like a perfect target for a lightning strike. Next to him, Carly Ellis, a field researcher with the UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography, asked a group of spectators if they were ready. Then, all together, they counted down: “Five, four, three, two, one.”

“Not a second later, James, water operations projects manager for the Yuba Water Agency, released the balloon. “Whew, that went fast!” said an onlooker as the balloon shot up, snatched by the winds, and flew into gray clouds, the attached sensor flapping like a tail.

“After a minute or so, the balloon disappeared, but the sensor kept sending data — temperature, pressure, moisture, wind — in real time to researchers on the ground. The balloon would rise until it reached a max altitude of 25,000 meters (15.5 miles), at which point it would pop and a small parachute would deploy, carrying the sensor safely back to the ground, collecting more data on the way down.

“The event was the first weather balloon launch from a Yuba Water Agency site near Beale Air Force Base. But it will not be the last. During atmospheric rivers, scientists plan to release a balloon every three hours from this point to collect data. And the more data, the better, because understanding the structure of these storms can help with forecasting and flood control.

“The idea is we’re looking for science to provide answers to managing one of the most precious resources the state has, which is water,” James says months later, as he explains the water management mission to Comstock’s.

“In winter months, atmospheric rivers (such as Pineapple Express storms, which originate near Hawaii) come barreling in from the Pacific Ocean to batter the Western states. They’re like that unpredictable relative that drops by on short notice: making messes, causing spills, breaking things. Over a 40-year span, these storms caused roughly $1.1 billion in damages annually to California and 10 other western states, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.

“For decades, flood management involved dumping water from the reservoirs, which usually then flows into rivers toward the ocean, to make space for flood waters. It was a “better safe than sorry” strategy to protect flood-prone areas. But sometimes the rains never came, so that water, which could have been used to supply homes and farms, was lost.

“Following the weather balloon launch in Yuba County, 2020 marks the beginning of the field campaign for Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations, or FIRO, a new water management strategy and collaborative effort by various agencies. The idea is that, in the face of climate change, environmental stress and population growth, advanced technology can lead to enhanced weather forecasting, which could make a huge impact in preventing floods and keeping reservoirs full.

‘Forecasts Aren’t Reliable’

“Researchers are already using radar aimed at the Sierra Nevada and dropping sensors from military planes above storms in the Pacific Ocean. They will check moisture levels in the soil to see how much is absorbed. Weather balloons have been used for a long time, released by the National Weather Service every 12 hours at sites across the U.S., including three in California. But now, researchers plan to send them up more frequently during storms from strategic sites in the state. With better tools at their disposal, agencies can monitor atmospheric rivers and plan accordingly, says Anna Wilson, field research manager for the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps.

“It is so important for California’s future as we start to get less snow, more rain, more intense storms, and swings between wet and dry years becoming more severe,” Wilson says. “We need to use everything that’s out there in service of this pressing problem of Western water.”

“Across the U.S., many large dams were built in the mid-1900s, when weather forecasting was low-tech. Predictive tools have become more advanced, but many water control manuals are stuck in the past. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages flood risk across the country, partially paid for the construction of the major reservoirs so it has dictated how to operate portions of the reservoirs set aside for flood operations. The process, before the days of satellites and modern radar, was simple: If the water level crossed a specified line on the diagram, water managers were supposed to release water.

“In the 1970s, Joseph Countryman was head of reservoir operations for the Corps in Sacramento. With the diagram being so crude, he advocated to incorporate forecasts. But the chain of command, which flowed up and eastward to Washington, D.C., didn’t want to bank on weather predictions to manage floods, he says. “‘Yes, the logic is great,’” Countryman recalls being told, “‘but the forecasts aren’t reliable.’”

Retrieved May 13, 2020 from

Be well everyone.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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