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San Diego Researchers Probe Rain System Soaking Area

Rain lingers on the horizon behind Scripps Pier, which is where weather balloon launches are happening on Mar. 10, 2020.
Erik Anderson
Rain lingers on the horizon behind Scripps Pier, which is where weather balloon launches are happening on Mar. 10, 2020.

The rain moving through the San Diego region this week is being carried on an atmospheric river, and local researchers are working to better understand the weather system.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography Researcher Alison Michaelis worked to attach a small instrument cluster to a latex weather balloon.

“And I’m just going to tie it on there real tight. So it doesn’t fall off,” she said.

Michaelis and Chad Hecht, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography meteorologist, have been at the end of Scripps Pier since midday Monday, launching a helium-filled balloon every three hours. A balloon is sent aloft day or night, in wet or dry conditions.

The instruments on the balloons begin sending back data almost as soon as they are launched. A laptop computer records everything for future analysis.

“We’re able to get an idea of what is going on inside those cloudy areas that we can’t see otherwise,” Michaelis said.

VIDEO: San Diego Researchers Probe Rain System Soaking Area

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The balloon swells as it rises, growing to the size of a school bus before it finally bursts. A small parachute allows the instruments to take measurements on the way down.

“Some of our recent launches overnight got up to about 23,000 meters,” Michaelis said. “And so we’re gathering temperature data, moisture data, wind data, wind direction and wind speed, all the way.”

But that is not the only way the team is collecting information from the water-laden storm.

An Air Force C-130 plane has been flying above the system over the Pacific Ocean.

“We’ve launched a balloon from the ground up. They’re dropping instrumentation from the air to the ocean surface,” said Hecht. “They’re doing that say every 100 nautical miles or so. About 25 time in a single flight for each flight lasting about eight hours.”

The whole idea is to learn as much as possible about the systems so forecast models can better predict when they will happen, how intense they will be and what they might do when they hit landfall.

San Diego Researchers Probe Rain System Soaking Area
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.