Our (slightly doomed) flight to an atmospheric river

Our (slightly doomed) flight to an atmospheric river

March 26, 2020 78 By Jose Scott


(engine humming) – [Narrator] It’s dawn on a Tuesday at Travis Air Force Base
in Northern California. We’re here as guests of the Air Force. They’re sending a plane somewhere into the heart of the North Pacific to study a weather phenomenon
called an atmospheric river, and we’ll be riding shotgun. – …head if we have
to disembark the plane when we crash in the
water, not that we will. (gentle music) – We’re getting on that plane which is a WC-130J Super
Hercules with the Air Force to meet an atmospheric river
over the North Pacific. They’re going to be dropping scientific instruments
about halfway through to measure the atmospheric
conditions in the storm. – [Narrator] Atmospheric
rivers are the most important source of rain and snow in California. And they’re responsible for
the worst of its flooding. They’re crucial to a region
that’s constantly teetering between not enough water and way too much. So scientists are anxious to
understand and predict them, which is why we’re here, strapped into a cramped cargo plane, taking off on a 10-hour flight to nowhere with no idea how far off-script
this flight was going to go. – We’re just having a little
bit of a system malfunction. – Its a potentially dangerous situation. (indistinct background noise)
(gentle music) – So, sorry in advance
the audio’s gonna suck, It is really, really loud in here. It’s around 110 decibels, and it’s impossible to hear anybody talk. So we’ve got to be a little
scrappy with the audio. – [Narrator] The crew on
this flight is all Air Force. The civilian scientists had
to follow along from land. We met the pilot and the co-pilot, the navigator, the weather officer, and a cargo supervisor
called the loadmaster. Both the crew and the aircraft are part of the vaunted Hurricane Hunters. These are the folks who fly
directly into hurricanes to gather crucial weather
data about the storms. Today’s flight: much lower key. Our pilot walked us through
the plan for the day. – So we took off from here at Travis Air Force Base. And so we’re just flying out west. We’re right here right now. This is where we’re going
to start gathering data, and so they want data from
here, to here, to here. So evidently that river is
passing through here somewhere I’m guessing. – [Narrator] While we do that, a twin flight will depart from Hawaii and cover the western end of the river. – [Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa] So
they’re taking off from here and flying this route,
or flying this route. And so as, you know, the storm
must be coming across here, gathering as much data as we can from it. – [Narrator] As exciting as that sounds, the so-called river will
be a little anti-climactic. – [Rachel Becker] Will you know
by a change in the weather, the conditions or the turbulence at all when we reach the atmospheric river? Or is it…? – We probably won’t. – [Rachel Becker] Okay. – It’s just a matter of
humidity in the air to us. It doesn’t affect the airplane at all. So to us it’s kind of a non-event. (voice on radio speaking) – [Narrator] Scientists have been talking about atmospheric rivers since the 1990s. But they’ve hit headlines in a big way over the last few years. – An atmospheric river. – There is the atmospheric river. – It’s an atmospheric river. – [Narrator] They’re massive bands of moist air and wind
that carry as much water as 27 Mississippi Rivers. The ones in this region
flow off the Pacific until they smack into a
significant mountain range. That forces the air upward
where it cools and condenses to fall as rain and snow. Just a few of these storms can supply as much as half of California’s
yearly precipitation. And over the past 40 years, they’ve caused almost all of
the estimated flood damage across large parts of the West Coast. But there’s still a lot that scientists don’t know about them. They can tell if there’s going
to be an atmospheric river, but anything more is tough,
even just a few days out. – Basically, when, where,
how long, how much. All of those things they
want to be better at. – [Narrator] Anna Wilson
is a weather researcher at UC San Diego, and one of the people driving
this mission from the ground. – Understanding them is really crucial for resilience of our water supply, for water managers and stuff, and also for emergency preparedness. And then of course, there’s
like the everyday reason that people just want an
accurate weather forecast. – [Narrator] Today’s mission
exists because Anna and others need a detailed picture
of atmospheric rivers. And the data need to be sampled vertically all the way down to the ocean surface. Satellites can struggle to see the action through the clouds. But luckily there’s another
tool called a dropsonde. It’s a little airborne lab that parachutes down to the ocean surface collecting data along the way. We’ve got a few boxes of them on board. When the time comes, the loadmaster will fire about 25 out the bottom of the plane. We spoke to the navigator about the route. – I’m going to build
waypoints for us to fly. That equal spacing, the
range rate crosses our line. That’s what we’re going to be dropping. – [Narrator] With the plan
in place, we settled in to wait for a rendezvous with the river. Except, that never happened. A couple hours into the flight
the crew got a lot busier, conferring with each other and looking out at the wing of the plane. And then abruptly word came down. We were heading back to base immediately. We asked the loadmaster
what was happening. – What’s going on right now? – We’re experiencing a
fuel system malfunction. – What does that mean? – That means that we are losing fuel every single time that we
transfer fuel between tanks. We’re turning around to go home. We terminated mission. – [Narrator] We eventually
got the full story from the pilot. – [Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa] So
we have eight fuel tanks. Two of those extra tanks we
used on our way out here, and they worked fine. The last two fuel tanks we tried to use when it became time for those, and we can see a fuel leak when we use those other
two extra fuel tanks. – How can you tell there’s a fuel leak? – Because you see the fuel, you know, streaming down the right wing as it goes behind the airplane. – [Narrator] Two unusable tanks meant enough fuel to get home, but not enough to reach the
atmospheric river and get home. – How does that feel? – Terrible. It’s showing up for a sporting event, hearing that your team
is forfeiting, you know? It’s just… We don’t like to do it. – [Narrator] Word of the mission failure reached the scientists on the ground too. – I was right here in this office, and the reaction was disappointment, but also just like, you know, what’s the problem? Make sure they can get back okay and everybody will be safe. And you’re all the way out
in the middle of the Pacific. That’s nerve-racking (laughing). – [Narrator] Still, it’s a bummer, because understanding atmospheric rivers is only getting more critical. California’s rainfall already fluctuates wildly from year to year. And as climate change continues, scientists are predicting
the worst of both worlds. – [Anna Wilson] The stronger
storms will get stronger and more intense and longer, and the lower category storms, or precipitation that isn’t from ARs, is expected to decrease in frequency. We can just expect that to increase, with extremely wet years
flipping back and forth with extremely dry years. – [Narrator] The end of
the mission went by fast. The plane made a beeline back to base. The loadmaster did fire
off a couple dropsondes, but it was mostly for our benefit. And just like that, we
were back over land. (plane engine roaring) So, obviously a disappointing flight, but one silver lining. Remember that second flight from Hawaii? It was successful. It sent 25 dropsondes into the river. The data from the sensors
made it back to the plane, then up to a satellite, then out to databases around the world. And from there, it helps
make real predictions about the river, which is no joke. We later saw some of the damage caused by this specific atmospheric river. It went on to flood the
town of Sumas, Washington, and caused a landslide across
Interstate 5, near Seattle. So these flights, they matter. And with more extreme
weather in the forecast, scientists like Anna will take
all the data they can get. – [Anna Wilson] We were
glad to at least have the Hawaii flight. Of course, it would have
been better if this plane could have done all of the observations, but we’ll still appreciate what we’ve got and then just keep planning
for success in the future. (gentle music) – This video is a collaboration between The Verge and CalMatters, a non-profit news outlet
bringing you stories about policy and politics in California. For more on atmospheric rivers, head over to CalMatters.org, where we have a much longer story. And thanks for watching.