What scientists are hoping to learn by flying directly into snowstorms : Short Wave For the past few winters, researchers have been intentionally flying into snowstorms. And high in those icy clouds, the team collected all the information they could to understand—how exactly do winter storms work?

With more accurate data could come more accurate predictions about whether a storm would cause treacherous conditions that shut down schools, close roads and cancel flights. NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce recently took to the skies for one of these flights and shares her reporting with us today.

Read more of Nell's reporting on this NASA effort: https://n.pr/3lk9utH

Want to hear about other storm chasing happening in the name of science? Email us at shortwave@npr.org.

What scientists are hoping to learn by flying directly into snowstorms

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hey, SHORT WAVErs. Emily Kwong here. So I'm staring out my window, and I am scanning for signs of spring. And I see a few. You know, there's some crocuses popping up. The sun is shining in places. But there's plenty of times I walk outside with no coat and the best of intentions only to turn right around. It is not spring yet. And if you flip on The Weather Channel...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A powerful nor'easter is dropping heavy snow across parts of the northeast, where more than 100,000 homes and businesses were without power Tuesday morning.

KWONG: In some places, it's straight-up winter. States like New York, Massachusetts got a lot of snow. This is not spring weather. This is the kind of weather that makes you want to stock up on toilet paper and drink hot chocolate.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Driving conditions are already treacherous across parts of the state.

KWONG: But for one group of scientists, they have spent the past few winters eagerly awaiting snowstorms like this one so that they can fly right into the storm clouds on board a research plane loaded with instruments to understand what's going on. And NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce recently joined them for one of the final flights of this research campaign. Hey, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Emily, how are you doing?

KWONG: Why are researchers so focused on snowstorms on the East Coast, east of the Rocky Mountains?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it's a highly populated part of the country. So, you know, snowstorms here can bring a number of big cities to a halt. And this meteorologist, Lynn McMurdie, told me there's a lot that scientists just don't understand.

LYNN MCMURDIE: Our forecast models have improved a lot. We usually have a fairly good idea that there will be snow or not. But, you know, listen to them. They'll say anywhere between 1 to 6 inches of snowfall will happen and on this broad area between, you know, Maine and maybe down to North Carolina. So that's a - those are pretty broad brushes. And we're trying to get it to be more specific.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Basically, so that a weather forecast can give a much better idea of what a winter storm might deliver. So Lynne McMurdie works at the University of Washington, and she's the head of this research project. And she told me the last time anyone tried to do one like this, it was, like, 30 years ago. So obviously, a lot has changed since then. The study is called IMPACTS, and that stands for Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms.

KWONG: Got to love a good acronym.

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KWONG: So today on the show, we're going to fly into the clouds with Nell and a bunch of scientists to see how they're able to spy on some of the tiny goings on that determine whether cloud will drop a dusting of fluffy powder or a crippling blizzard of the wet white stuff. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: OK. So, Nell, I'm admittedly a nervous flyer. I have spent years trying to get better at it and have landed on just drinking coffee blended with coffee liqueur. So that's my solution. How do you feel about flying on airplanes, like, in good weather, let's say?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Generally speaking, I don't like it.

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GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, even in good weather, it always makes me a little nervous, even though I know it's safe. And eventually, you know, I do look out the window, and I admire the clouds. But yeah, I am not super excited.

KWONG: I'm kind of impressed you did this story then.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You know, it was for science, Emily. My love of science conquers all. And I really - I didn't know what to expect. So I just felt like whatever it was, I was going to do it. And I drove down to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. It's on the coast of Virginia, you know, like, three hours sort of southeast of Washington, D.C. And I met up with Lynn and a bunch of scientists and pilots who were sitting in a conference room, trying to plan their flight for the day. So basically, they're looking at this radar map that was projected up on the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I mean, we're talking about North Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Like, imagine going down West Virginia, like right in the middle of it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Northwest North Carolina, Kentucky border.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What they wanted to do is fly right through these things that are called snow bands. Now, you might see them when you're watching a TV weather forecast. They show up in the radar map, and they look like these bright streaks of yellow or red that are just, like, going across, you know...

KWONG: Oh, yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...The sort of big area of the storm.

KWONG: I have definitely seen these, but I don't really know what they mean. Like, what's going on inside a snow band?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So Lynn McMurdie told me, you know, something in the clouds is interacting with the radar to produce this pattern.

MCMURDIE: So the assumption is that must mean there's a lot of snow there, but it's not so simple. And that's actually what we're trying to understand.

KWONG: So what's not so simple about it?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She told me they really don't understand what it is in the clouds that's creating the pattern, like, why it's interacting with the radar to produce this. You know, they don't understand why it looks different from the clouds outside the band or how these bands form in the first place or what this all means for the forecast.

KWONG: So the plan with this research campaign is to go find out in a plane.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Exactly. Just fly through the bands.

MCMURDIE: It's fine. I didn't bring my coat.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Come on. You're from Seattle.

MCMURDIE: I know.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She takes me onto the plane. It's, you know, really cold and rainy and windy outside. The plane's this NASA plane. It's, like, white. It's got four propellers. You know, there are some extra things hanging from the wing that look sort of like skinny jet engines. So, you know, those are some of the science instruments. And we go inside. She introduced me around. You know, I get the safety briefing.

KWONG: And what's inside? Like, are there seats? Are there windows?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's pretty stripped down. So it's not like a commercial aircraft. You know, there's seats for the researchers, who mostly stare at their laptops. There's some racks of science equipment, computers. There's a few windows but not, like, a lot of windows. And once we take off, it's also really loud, like, really, really loud. People have to wear ear protection at all times. And, you know, mostly, they just spend the flight, which in this case was eight hours, staring at the data coming in on their laptops. You know, but in the back, this researcher named Claire Robinson is holding something that looks like a brown paper towel tube.

KWONG: Oh, what's that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's this little launchable package of sensors. So, you know, she sticks the tube into this other tube that's kind of mounted, you know, on the plane that will eject the sensor out into the air.

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KWONG: (Vocalizing).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: (Laughter).

KWONG: Wow. That's pretty cool.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So she told me the probe parachutes down through the clouds. And as it does, it sends back all kinds of readings.

CLAIRE ROBINSON: Temperature, pressure, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction. And there's a couple other measurements, as well.

KWONG: That is so cool. So when you looked out the window into the snowstorm, what was it like? What was the color?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sometimes it was just white. You know, so we were going in and out of clouds depending on where we were in the flight plan. And, you know, exactly where we were was hard to tell unless you watched a map. So, you know, one of the researchers who would periodically fill me in is Christian Nairy. He's a Ph.D. student with the University of North Dakota.

CHRISTIAN NAIRY: Right now we're heading right towards the snow band. It actually looks pretty impressive on the radar.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He shows me on the screen. There's, like, this picture of this little plane that's headed right for this bright streak of yellow.

KWONG: And that little plane is you.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yep. Exactly.

KWONG: How comforting. And as you headed into this band of snow, what did that feel like? I mean, there had to be a lot of turbulence, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was not like I worried it might be, although Christian told me, you know, sometimes, it can get really bad. Like, I don't know if you remember that blizzard that hit Boston, like, in January of 2022. I think it also, like, dumped a bunch of snow in New York. Do you remember that one?

KWONG: Yeah. It kind of brought life to a halt for a while. It was a lot of snow.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So that was the biggest storm they got to fly through during their research campaign. Christian told me that it was a night flight. And at one point, the pilot was like, you all need to put on your seatbelts, like, now.

NAIRY: About 10 seconds later, we hit some crazy updraft. And I could feel the skin on my face start - like, we were pulling some G's. And then we hit the downdraft on the other side of it, and my laptop went flying.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the instrument Christian was monitoring - it's kind of amazing. It's one of, you know, those instruments out on the plane's wings. And it's got lasers and a camera. And what it does is take pictures of cloud particles that it then just sends to his laptop.

KWONG: Wow. So you're saying whatever cloud you're flying through, in real time - or almost - he can literally see what the minuscule bits of the cloud look like?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right, yeah. So you look out the window. It just looks like white. You know, like, what is it?

KWONG: Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But, like, he can actually see. And it's like a little slideshow. So, you know, it's just, like, flashing picture after picture. And they're just, like, coming up on his laptop. And sometimes, you would see these perfect-looking little snowflakes. Like, they'd be this black and white image of, like, a single snowflake in the cloud that we are just flying through.

KWONG: Seeing the anatomy of a cloud from the inside of the cloud. That's pretty incredible, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was pretty great. And, you know, there were all these, like, little snowflakes, but there were also ones that looked like rods. So, you know, the ice crystals can form, like, pencil-shaped rods. Or there's these other ones that they call TIE fighters since they look like those "Star Wars" spaceships. They're sort of, like, two snowflakes, like, attached to the ends of kind of a rod. Sometimes, you know, they see these little, round spheres that are, like, droplets of super cold liquid water.

NAIRY: People don't really realize this, but water can stay in a liquid form up to around, like, -34 degrees Celsius.

KWONG: For those of us who only know Fahrenheit, what is that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That is -29 degrees Fahrenheit.

KWONG: Oh, that is really cold. All right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. And this super cooled liquid water is actually a particular focus of the scientists' research. They want to understand where it is in the storm and how it interacts with snowflakes and with radar because what they're doing is they take all these in-the-cloud measurements, and then they can compare them to what's seen in the radar from ground installations and also with what's seen from instruments that are above the storm because while our research plane was flying along the East Coast through the clouds, another research plane was on the same flight path but way higher, over 60,000 feet - so studying the storm from above and that plane goes so high, there's just one person, the pilot, who basically wears, like, a spacesuit.

KWONG: I'm really beginning to understand why this research program was such a big deal - that they're looking at these storms from so many perspectives - from above, from inside, like where you were, and then from below. You're getting, like, a 360 view of these snow bands.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And in the three winters they were flying, they flew through all kinds of storms. Lynn McMurdie told me, you know, the one I was in likely produced some cold rain on the ground. You know, even if there was snow in the clouds, the temperature at the ground meant that it was, like, probably, like, sleet, you know, kind of like icy rain, that kind of thing. But that's fine because they want to see all kinds of East Coast winter storms.

MCMURDIE: The whole range from, you know, super snowstorm that blocks all the traffic for, you know, the whole up and down the East Coast to, oh, this is just a normal rainstorm. Why do you care? But we need to know that whole range to understand all the structures that are in storms, what's common, what's not common.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the project just wrapped up. They did their last flight on February 28. And what they learned by analyzing all their data over the next few years should eventually get built into weather forecasts.

KWONG: As someone from the East Coast, I really appreciate knowing that there's been this effort to better understand the storms that can kind of rock our world. You know, we just had these big storms on the Atlantic Coast this week, but it's been kind of nonsnowy down here. Don't you think?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, it hasn't been a really snowy winter. But, you know, next winter, who knows what's going to happen? And, you know, the thing that I think is interesting about weather research is that, you know - what's that old cliche? Like, everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. You know what I mean? Like, in our own small ways, we cope with the weather. But I feel like these people are, like - they're out there, like, taking weather on. Do you know what I mean? Like, it's a little heroic, like, going into the storm for science.

KWONG: Yeah. And also, for all those people out there who say the weather is a boring topic, clearly, it's not. Thank you so much, Nell, for this episode.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

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KWONG: This snowy masterpiece was produced by Liz Metzger. It was edited by managing producer Rebecca Ramirez and fact-checked by Anil Oza. The audio engineers were Maggie Luthar and Josh Newell and Nell Greenfieldboyce, who engineered this entire thing from her plane seat during this eight-hour flight. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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