Environment & Science

Scientists launch research campaign to enable better El Niño forecasts

Scientists on NOAA's Ronald H. Brown ship will launch weather balloons up to eight times a day in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean to help study the current El Niño.
Scientists on NOAA's Ronald H. Brown ship will launch weather balloons up to eight times a day in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean to help study the current El Niño.
NOAA

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began deploying weather balloons with sensors and radios attached to them Tuesday in the Pacific Ocean as part of a new effort to better understand the effects of El Niño.

The helium-filled balloons, launched from the NOAA research ship Ronald H. Brown, carry sensors and radio transmitters intended to collect data over the Pacific Ocean's tropical waters. That's where the El Niño weather phenomenon is spawned. Researchers on the ship are scheduled to launch the balloons up to eight times a day as it sails from Hawaii for a planned arrival in San Diego on March 18.

NOAA scientists say the timing is perfect to study this year's abnormally strong El Niño conditions. The last two strongest El Niños — in 1982 and 1998— soaked California, causing landslides and flooding. The research team hopes this effort will lead to more accurate reporting and better forecasting on what the weather pattern means for California's current drought — and how the state may be impacted by future El Niño-generated storms.

"So what we would like to be able to do is, the next big El Niño that comes along — when people say, 'Well, should I buy a ski pass for Northern California or should I just bail and buy my ski pass for Utah' — maybe we'd be able to answer that question a little better. Right now, we wouldn't have a good answer for that," said NOAA physicist Christopher Fairall, who is involved in the research effort.

The balloon launches are part of a larger land, sea and air effort — the El Niño Rapid Response Field Campaign — that, according to the NOAA website, is also collecting data from the following sources:

The information from all these sources is being transmitted via satellites to a global system that takes in weather data and uses it to refine computer models for both short-term and long-range forecasts.

"It's kind of a long, slow, meticulous, boring process to make all these incremental improvements [to] the current models [and their] gigantic constructs of computer code and things like that, that thousands of people have been working on for decades," Fairall said. "So, it's kind of [like] we're trying to push a glacier and make it move faster. And it's not that easy. A lot of people are working on it, but it's a slow process."

The information will not only add to the knowledge about El Niño, it will also help make all weather forecasting more reliable, Fairall said.

"Most of our data from over the oceans comes from satellites," he said. "Satellites are kind of like the bad restaurant that gives you lots of food but it isn't very good. Satellites produce vast amounts of data, but it's typically not the exact information you want to put into your weather model. So there's a lot of work done to massage the data the weather satellites do give you and to give you these initial conditions you need in your weather model."