NASA Prototype Forecasts Storms For Transoceanic Flights

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A new NASA-funded system developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is now providing weather forecasts so that plane flights can avoid major storms over remote ocean regions.

The prototype system provides eight-hour forecasts that are designed for air traffic controllers and pilots. The system combines satellite data and computer weather models to map storms over the world's oceans. The technology is based on NCAR systems that alert pilots and air traffic controllers of storms over the continental United States. The new system's creation was inspired in part by the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009 when it encountered thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean.

"These new forecasts can help fill an important gap in our aviation system," said Cathy Kessinger, lead researcher on the project at NCAR. "Pilots have had limited information about atmospheric conditions as they fly over the ocean, where conditions can be severe. By providing them with a picture of where significant storms will be during an eight-hour period, the system can contribute to both the safety and comfort of passengers on flights."

Predicting the turbulence associated with storms over oceans is somewhat harder than storms over land. Geostationary satellites in orbit are unable to see within clouds the way ground-based radar can. Pilots often have to choose between massive detours or flying directly through an area that may contain storms associated with windshear, icing conditions, lightning, hail, or severe turbulence.

Currently, pilots on transoceanic flights get preflight briefings, with weather updates every four hours in the case of extreme storms. The planes used for such flights also have an onboard radar, which is of little use for planning while in-flight.

"Turbulence is the leading cause of injuries in commercial aviation," said John Haynes, Applied Sciences program manager at NASA Headquarters. "This prototype system is of crucial importance to pilots and is another demonstration of the practical benefit of NASA's Earth observations."

(Image courtesy NASA/NCAR Research Applications Laboratory)

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