New lake-effect study to fly into heart of storms

SUNY Oswego meteorology faculty member Scott Steiger and students next winter will study lake-effect snow up close and personal thanks to $320,000 from the National Science Foundation and an armada of instrument-loaded vehicles, including an airplane to fly into the heart of the storms.

Two years ago, an $89,000 NSF grant enabled Steiger and a student team to test the use of a Doppler-on-Wheels in studying the structure of the powerful storms, which can dump feet of snow on the Tug Hill Plateau and surrounding communities.

Scott SteigerThis time, a collaboration of four universities and the Center for Severe Weather Research will enable scientists to gather lake-effect data with the help of a King Air plane, a Mobile Integrated Profiling System and three Doppler-on-Wheels radar-equipped trucks.

“We have all these toys now and we have people at different universities with similar interests to study these intense lake-effect snowstorms,” Steiger said. “The planning on this project started about 10 years ago—it took us about a decade to finally get this project to happen.”

The overall project—called OWLeS (Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems)—consists of nearly $4 million in three companion NSF grants. One grant, for nearly $1 million, includes scientists and equipment from the University of Wyoming, University of Alabama-Huntsville, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, as well as SUNY Oswego.

Steiger’s team will study long-fetch lake-effect storms, whose snow bands run parallel to the long axis of Lake Ontario and can turn into relentless snow machines.

“The last time, we had 10 students for field operations,” he said. “This time it might involve 30 students of ours.”

Night flights

University of Wyoming owns the instrument-studded aircraft that will fly across the short axis of lake-effect storms, to limit icing, Steiger said. The plane also will fly spiral routes inside the clouds, often at night when the most intense storms set up.

“They have very experienced pilots,” Steiger said of the Wyoming crew. “The issue with the airplane—let’s say we have a go or no-go decision—is that it’s money. We are talking serious money to deploy. You definitely want to get it right. Luckily, with lake-effect snowstorms it’s pretty well predictable if it’s going to happen a day in advance. “

The MIPS—a trailer from Alabama-Hunstville loaded with weather-profiling instruments—and the three DOWs from the Center for Severe Weather Research will probe the same storms from the ground, providing datasets for comparison with the ones from the air.

“The grant we had two years ago gave us some insight into the detailed structures of the snow bands,” Steiger said. “There were a lot of instances of spinning air—we call them vortices, about a hundred meters wide. They could have been related to waterspouts, we really don’t know. We really want to investigate how and why these areas of rotation form in the snow band. These areas of rotation can influence where the band moves, how heavy the snow gets.”

Snow lightning

Another big goal of Oswego’s part of the project, he said, is to see whether there are ways to better estimate snowfall rate based on radar data. Students on the ground will take measurements at preselected sites, and have the aircraft data for on-scene data comparisons.

The third overarching goal of the study will be to determine how and why lake-effect clouds sometimes become electrified and produce lightning, Steiger said.

The Oswego team also will assist some scientists on the other grants with related projects, such as Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ project to study how the Finger Lakes modify the snowfall and circulation of lake-effect storms.

Oswego’s project will get underway in earnest this summer with creation of a logistical plan for identifying sites for weather balloons, ground-based vehicles and instruments and more. Meteorology faculty member Robert Ballentine will coordinate forecasting.

Steiger said the upcoming challenge will be particularly exciting for him. “This is kind of the climax of my life in terms of my passion with weather, because I’m going to be able to get up close and personal with lake-effect snowstorms and really further understand how these things work,” he said.

PHOTO CAPTION: Snow chasers—Instrument-studded vehicles will enable researchers led by a team including SUNY Oswego’s Scott Steiger, associate professor of meteorology, to fly and drive into the heart of lake-effect snowstorms this December and January to further study their structure and improve forecasting, thanks to $320,000 in grant funds from the National Science Foundation.

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(Posted: Apr 10, 2013)

Tags: scott steiger, research news: student opportunities, research, meteorology, lake effect snow, innotech, earth sciences