Researchers to study clear weather

Monday, May 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Researchers from overseas, Canada and the United States are converging in Oklahoma to study weather, and they hope clouds and storms don't get in the way.

Western Oklahoma is the perfect setting for scientists who study severe weather. But researchers say it's also just right for the International H2O Project, which will study clear air.

``Our strategy is to blanket the area as thoroughly as we can with measurements and see what falls out of the data,'' said Erik Rasmussen with the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

More than 80 scientists from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States will fan out across western Oklahoma, southern Kansas and the Texas Panhandle during the next six weeks.

By understanding how temperature, humidity and wind collaborate in clear air to form storms, meteorologists hope they'll be able to pinpoint where and when severe weather is likely to develop. They also hope their research will help forecasters predict flooding, the nation's top weather-related killer.

The study will involve six specialized aircraft from the United States and Germany that will fly as low as 100 feet over sparsely populated areas. Researchers also will use Proteus, a futuristic NASA aircraft that will gather weather measurements from 56,000 feet.

They will launch hundreds of weather balloons and deploy vehicles equipped with mobile radar equipment and instruments for measuring wind speed, temperature, humidity, pressure and other conditions.

``We're going to see things we've never seen before, interpreting on the fly. We don't even know what our prey looks like,'' said Rasmussen, who was among the early tornado chasers while studying meteorology at OU in 1977.

He has spent most of his career pursuing storms and inventing instruments that better explain the anatomy of tornadoes and severe weather. With this project, Rasmussen and other researchers are breaking new ground.

``It's almost brand-new,'' he said. ``Our level of knowledge about what goes on in clear-air systems is almost nonexistent. What we got from these first seasons is just enough to make us scratch our heads.''

The fronts and dry lines that move across Oklahoma's wide-open plains each spring will present plenty of research opportunities in the next six weeks.

The fronts and dry lines create the converging air masses that lift warm, moist air from the ground's surface high into the atmosphere.

Water vapor suspended in the rising air cools and expands to the point that it condenses into clouds, which can continue to develop into thunderstorms.

Rasmussen, who works at OU's Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, said the project is unlike anything he has been involved with.

``It's going to be a lot harder than some of us have envisioned,'' he said. ``What we're looking at has never been looked at in such detail before. Some of us just don't know what to expect.''