Earth System Science Center and Department of Atmospheric Science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville

UAH scientists join study of thunderstorms at night

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (May 26, 2015) — The why and how of thunderstorms that
pop up at night are largely mysteries.

That's why a team of 18 scientists and students from The University of
Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) will spend the next six weeks in Kansas in the
Plains Elevated Convection At Night (PECAN) program, a research campaign
to study nighttime storms and related weather events across parts of four
western states.

The team from UAH's Severe Weather Institute Radar and Lightning
Laboratories (SWIRLL) leaves Thursday so they can be in Hays, Kansas, in
time for the PECAN roll call and open house on May 30. The research begins
June 1 and continues through July 15.

Why PECAN? Because without the sun to drive convection, trying to
understand how thunderstorms form at night is a tough nut to crack.

"Nocturnal convective storm initiation is largely a mystery almost
everywhere," said Dr. Kevin Knupp, a UAH professor of atmospheric science.
"We know some of the general aspects of it, but not the specifics."

One of the reasons so little is known about these storms is that they
generally happen after a cool, still layer of nighttime air forms near the
ground. That boundary layer isolates the interesting things that are
happening in the atmosphere from weather instruments on the surface, "so
weather stations are largely useless," said Knupp. "The atmosphere is
decoupled from the surface by this cool and stable boundary layer."

That's where PECAN fills in. Using several mobile radars and other
instruments that can probe up into the boundary layer and the atmosphere
above it, each night during the campaign PECAN will spread scientists
across western Kansas, and parts of Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma. UAH
is providing five vehicles, including two mobile Doppler radars — one that
makes traditional weather sweeps and another that is fixed looking upward,
to give detailed information about what is happening at multiple altitudes
above the instrument.

With instruments and scientists from eight national laboratories and 14
universities, the PECAN network will be large enough and sophisticated
enough to collect useful data from any weather events that occur over the
study area. The various participants are also expected to launch more than
1,200 weather balloons during the six week campaign.

"We just don't have the measurements right now," Knupp said. "With
aircraft and lots of radars and lots of balloons going into the air, you
begin to gather enough data to understand what's going on."

In addition to trying to learn more about what and how nighttime storms
start, PECAN will also look for data on how large storm systems build and
spread, the effects of gravity waves and bores on nighttime weather
conditions, and at the effects fast-moving, low-level winds above the
boundary layer have on weather conditions on the Great Plains.

UAH's PECAN preparations and participation — including data analysis after
the field campaign — are supported by a 3-year, $730,000 grant from the
National Science Foundation (NSF).

PECAN is a $13.5 million project largely funded by the NSF, with
additional support from NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

-- 30 --

For additional information:

Dr. Kevin Knupp, (256) 824-7947
     kevin@nsstc.uah.edu

Phillip Gentry, (256) 961-7618
     gentry@nsstc.uah.edu
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