Meteorology Students Improve Air Force’s Forecasting Abilities

Left to Right: Mitch McCue, Jared Rennie

Space operations conducted at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) are susceptible to strong winds associated with thunderstorms. These winds (otherwise known as convective winds) are caused by local temperature differences and pose the second most frequent danger for range activities and the Air Force forecasters who issue weather warnings. The most frequent danger? Lightning.

Since 2005, Professor Jim Koermer, Department of Atmospheric Science and Chemistry, has worked with Plymouth State meteorology students and KSC/CCAFS personnel on the convective wind issue. This research has been supported by the NASA-funded New Hampshire Space Grant Consortium of which Plymouth State’s meteorology program is an affiliate member.

During the initial effort, Koermer and Andrew Loconto, the first student to complete the Master of Science in Applied Meteorology program, gathered regional data from May through September (1995-2003). They also identified the periods that had warning-level convective winds. The data included five-minute wind observations from a high density weather tower network of 42 towers (operated by the Air Force) as well as other observational data obtained from the region and from Plymouth State’s weather archives. Quality control reviews of the wind data uncovered anomalous observations that were identified and filtered. Data were then consolidated into an eight-year warning-event climatology which provided a more complete and improved summary than was previously assembled.

The next phase of the initial research concentrated on evaluating current and proposed methods for predicting the convective winds and investigating improvements. Many of the existing forecast techniques used methods developed for mid-western thunderstorms; Plymouth State’s evaluation showed that they were quite poor at predicting the convective wind speeds. Some of the techniques were based on balloon-borne measurements while others were based on radar methodologies. Loconto developed some improved radar techniques which showed better results and eliminated most of the false alarm cases that were a problem with prior methods. The Air Force found PSU’s climatological results and assessments of operational methods extremely useful and incorporated the information in forecaster training.

During the following three summers (2006-2008), Koermer brought two PSU undergraduate students to continue and expand the work, especially on the climatological aspects. In 2007, the team gained access to radar data from the National Climatic Data Center and downloaded nearly 300,000 files covering 1995-2005. The radar data was graphically overlayed with the peak tower wind data and allowed the group to develop a new radar/wind climatology for the area based on shape factors, intensity, location, and outcomes for warning-level events.

In 2009, applied meteorology graduate students Mitch McCue and Jared Rennie accompanied Koermer to conduct a follow up study of several prediction techniques. Their research confirmed most, but not all, of the earlier findings, including one technique that showed significant promise to provide Air Force forecasters with greater forecast lead-time.

Mary Szpak, an undergraduate student from Harvard University, assisted the 2009 Plymouth State team by adding the data from 2008. PSU’s Professor Thomas Boucher provided insight and suggestions on statistical techniques.

The weather personnel at KSC/CCAFS expect Koermer and a student team to return next summer. The team will continue to present information that will assist Air Force forecasters in providing timely warnings for convective wind events.


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