NOAA installs advanced weather observatories
Later this month, the first of four new advanced “atmospheric river observatories” will be installed on the Sonoma Coast and should begin collecting data that will give agencies up and down the Russian River much more detailed information about powerful winter storms. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is heading up the project in conjunction with the USGS, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego; and California Department of Water Resources.
Researchers and scientists are currently at work in Bodega Bay setting up the first observatory, described as more of an array of sophisticated custom instruments monitoring everything from water vapor to wind speed. This site will be followed by installations at Eureka, Point Sur and Goleta, which are expected to be completed by 2014.
Meteorologists a little more than a decade ago did not even know that so-called atmospheric rivers, concentrated streams of water vapor associated with winter storms, even existed. NOAA’s Hydrometeorology Testbed (HMT) was founded to research and observe them, after they were discovered by a military satellite, and has been trying to understand how they work ever since.
“With satellites, we can see the telltale water vapor signature of an incoming atmospheric river over the ocean. However, NOAA’s offshore observing systems do not measure another key factor – strong low-altitude winds,” said Martin Ralph, Ph.D., a research meteorologist and branch chief at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. “With our new sensors, we’ll be able to measure those winds and more, to understand just how much moisture is moving in, which largely controls how extreme the precipitation inland will become. This information will ensure that meteorologists and emergency managers have additional information to keep the public informed about these potentially destructive storms.”
The agencies involved in the program expect to see significant improvement in predicative abilities and water management capabilities over the long term. The planned permanent observatories are part of the HMT program, a research arm of NOAA, not a weather forecasting network. But the data is available to weather forecast offices, and will be shared with local agencies, some of it in real-time.
“California needs to know how and where it might rain or snow, when and where to expect flooding,” said Michael Anderson, Ph.D., state climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources. He added, “The observatories will also help state officials and scientists monitor changes in atmospheric rivers associated with climate change.”
The Sonoma County Water Agency, which is responsible for floodwater management in the county, stands to benefit greatly from the new data and the ability to more accurately predict the effects of major storms.
“From a Sonoma Valley standpoint, understanding any changes to storm patterns might help us in thinking about groundwater management activities in the basin, perhaps prompting us to focus more on storm water retention, for example,” said Mark Bramfitt, Valley of the Moon Water District interim general manager. “VOMWD and the City of Sonoma are vitally interested in groundwater management, as we are both relying in some degree on groundwater resources to augment our supplies from SCWA.”