130 passengers on American Airlines Flight 1897 from San Antonio to Phoenix on Sunday (June 3rd) had a scary ride as their aircraft slammed head-on into a hail storm at 34,000 feet over South-Central New Mexico. Ultimately, this aircraft decided to make an emergency landing in El Paso - apparently using on-board instrumentation and a cockpit side-window to land since the windshield was shattered by golf-ball to tennis-ball size hail.
A wide swath of thunderstorms - including severe weather - was occurring through West Texas and New Mexico through the afternoon and evening. The normal jet route would take the Airbus A319 airliner along the same route as the Interstate 10 through West Texas - but due to weather, it appears Air Traffic Control routed traffic above just west of Odessa, Texas to Carlsbad, New Mexico, to near Capitan, New Mexico. That's where the real trouble began.
Attempting to avoid the strongest storms, the flight was routed over the Sierra Blanca mountain range north of Ruidoso, New Mexico, where - at first look on the radar - appears to show a decent break in the weather. A slight blip of rainfall on the above image is shown just ahead of the nose of the aircraft, but does not appear to be of much significance. Weather radar on-board the Airbus has not been released, but may have likely showed a different story. Here's what I found when I did some digging...
As you can see, significant weather radar reflectivity is noted in at the same place as the first image - why the difference? This is because the first image (top-down look) showed "Base Reflectivity" - the scan of the radar at the lowest level. The cross-section image shows the entire storm, and is likely to show a bit more of what the on-board weather radar would have shown, although it is possible that the frequency may have been attenuated (degraded by heavy precipitation) at some point - or the angle at which the airplane radar was broadcasted did not solicit correct feedback returns.
From the looks of things based on the top-down view and base-reflectivity imagery, this route appears to be the best way around a long line of storms. However - the atmospheric cross-section above proved that this was one of the worst places to cross.
Unfortunatly, this part of New Mexico is plagued by some radar dead-spots. It's rural, and the nearest radar (Alamogordo) sits on the west side of a mountain while this aircraft was approaching from the east - and the weather was on this east side of the mountain - making it a bit more difficult to "see".
The next nearest radar on the east side of the mountain (Clovis, New Mexico) is about 120 miles from the site of the incident. This is much further away than the Alamogordo radar (only 45 miles away), but due to terrain and the radar scan tilt at that distance, it actually captured a better view of the storm. This base-reflectivity, top-down radar image (above) shows a different story.
Why did Air Traffic route this aircraft into a hail storm? How come the pilots didn't "see" this weather and avoid it? The investigation will likely tell on this one, but it certainly wouldn't have been my advice. Fortunately, a miraculous landing in El Paso with little visibility out of a shattered windshield concluded this flight - nothing less than expert piloting figuring that one out.
It may surprise you that many of these forecasts have no meteorologist behind them – they are simply computed by advanced formulas and modelling software which are calibrated to spit out forecasts for anywhere on the planet. No meteorologist, no expertise.
But, it gets worse.
The internet and the exponential advancement of technology over the past few decades have greatly improved the capabilities of the meteorology community. Weather can be forecasted for anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world. Accuracy rates have skyrocketed, meteorological information has multiplied, and lives are being saved as a result.
All of this, however, hinges on one very important lifeline – technology, more specifically, the Internet, supercomputers, and electricity.
Here within lies the present-day problem, and in my opinion, a major threat to the safety and security of society. Old-timer meteorologists are shrinking in numbers, and their skills of extremely limited-data forecasting along with them. Universities don’t concentrate much – if at all – on limited data weather forecasting and analysis, and the U.S. National Weather Service relies heavily on supercomputers to compile terabytes of weather information together into a readable output for data analysis.
The first full week of Fall is expected to feel just like that!
I’ve made a “four-panel” of some of the things that meteorologists use to determine heavy rainfall potential, and I’ll explain below how we use them.
On the upper left corner, you will see forecast-model derived Precipitable Water. The best way to explain this is to think of the atmosphere like a sponge.
This week, the forecast calls for over 2 inches of precipitable water – which is near the maximum capacity of the atmosphere – and generally means that rain is likely. If the atmosphere can continue to be “fed” more moisture as it is raining (and this is common), then heavy rain and flooding are possible.
The bottom left panel shows the Jet Stream. Generally, the most energy with the Jet stream is found just to the right of the base of the trough – which happens to pinpoint much of Central and West Texas. The trough itself sits over the Western United States and shows where the lowest pressure and coldest air are aloft.
Meanwhile, at Laughlin Air Force Base, weather technicians observe the weather from the ground - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These observations are taken hourly - occasionally more often in the case of nearby inclement weather - and much like weather balloon data are transmitted for use into weather forecast models. Since weather only exists because of how the sun heats the surface of the earth unevenly across distance - surface weather observations (which contain a significant amount of weather data, as seen below) are essential to weather forecasting.
Most surface weather observations across the United States are automatic - but these automatic stations don't always provide accurate weather data (such as clouds, visibility, thunderstorms, etc). Because of this, most weather offices and commercial airports visually report the present and approaching weather and clouds while using the weather sensor to calculate pressures, temperatures, and winds.
Due to Del Rio's somewhat remote location, accurate weather observations from Laughlin AFB around-the-clock play an integral piece in monitoring and forecasting weather across a wide region of west, central, and south Texas - and each weather observation is then ingested into global forecasting models which provide pin-point readings of weather data - such as atmospheric pressure and wind speed and direction - which is key to hurricane forecasting - even if it's over a thousand miles away.
Together, whether contracted with the National Weather Service or employed at Laughlin AFB, local weather experts are playing a much larger part in Hurricane Irma support than most Del Rioans could ever imagine.
We never know when the next hurricane may take a path up the Rio Grande and we'll be hoping that other areas of the country are looking out for us - and they will be. In the meteorology world - like many other public service careers - meteorologists are always standing-by, day or night, to observe, forecast, watch, and warn of hazardous weather - and in Del Rio Texas, you've got a great team.
July was a long, hot month in Del Rio. With sixteen days at or above 100°F and an average temperature 1.9°F warmer than normal, High Pressure, as predicted, played a very large role in setting 2017's high temperature record at a current 107°F while keeping rainfall at just over a half-inch in Del Rio locally through the month.
In fact, much of Texas is either in - or approaching - drought conditions to start off the month of August due to high temperatures combined with lower-than-normal rainfall in July.
Overall, confidence in this forecast remains mediocre. Just two weeks ago, the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) issued a forecast for August indicated above-normal temperatures, not below-normal as their current forecast shows. Both indicated wetter-than normal conditions, but so did July's forecast - which turned out to be somewhat of a flop.
However, after some personal investigation comparing the Del Rio 2016-2017 temperature trends to those of 1999-2000 - largely because of the similarities of experiencing warmer than normal winters, early spring seasons, and hot July's - I found that in August of 2000, temperatures were cooler than experienced in July (even though August is typically warmer than July) - which, when compared to the trends of 2017, could stand to back-up the cooler-than-normal forecast, statistically speaking.
If, as advertised, August is wetter-than-normal, it would be no surprise to see cooler-than-normal weather simply due to the excess of cloud cover overhead. Not only do clouds block incoming solar radiation, moisture itself takes longer to heat than dry air, basically not allowing afternoon temperatures to peak quite as high as possible under drier conditions.
With that being said, I'll leave you with a cool infrared satellite loop from the University of Wisconsin for the past 7 days. I could watch this over and over again!
Dan Schreiber is an operational meteorologist, with experience