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NASA Plane Captures Image of Violent Thunderstorm During Research Mission

Photo credit: NASA
(Image of a thunderstorm, taken by NASA, during the IPHEx mission.)

During a May 2014 research mission, NASA researchers took this shot of an imposing thunderstorm over the North and South Carolina border. The storm, typical for the region in the spring, also had an “overshooting top.” An overshooting top is an indication of a very strong updraft — the fast, upward-moving column of air that feeds the storm.

While the NASA ER-2 aircraft — a variant of the U2 spy plane — flew at an altitude of 65,000 feet, the updraft propelled the storm to a whopping height of more than 50,000 feet. Just for a bit of perspective, commercial airliners fly between 30,000 and 40,000 feet.

NASA ER2 Aircraft
Photo credit: NASA
(Plane used by NASA for atmospheric research. This same plane took the image of the thunderstorm show above on May 23, 2014.)

A strong updraft will also keep rain and hail suspended in the bowels of the storm and at times, under the right conditions, large hail can be formed as well. That’s exactly what happened in this case, the storm dropped baseball-sized hail along the border of the two Carolinas. A Storm Prediction Center wrap-up from the area shows numerous reports of baseball to softball-sized hail, at least one of which came from the Charlotte suburb of Fort Mill, S.C.

As mentioned before, image of the thunderstorm came from a NASA project — the Integrated Precipitation and Hydrology Experiment — which hopes to get a better grasp on precipitation over mountainous areas. So, if you don’t live in a mountainous region, why does it matter to you?

Here’s why: The IPHEx mission is part of large study called the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission. The GPM is a collaborative effort between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency that aims to make precipitation estimates from remote sensing sources — like satellites and radar — more accurate.

More accurate estimations of rainfall, at the surface, could help to better inform forecasters when they’re making decisions about flood warning products.

A NASA blog post explains,”Hydrologic [water flow] models are used by water managers to predict where rainwater goes after it hits the ground – underground and into streams and rivers where it supplies freshwater to the region, or becomes a natural hazard. Evaluating and improving these models is an important part of the field campaign.”

These studies will be an integral part of advancing the science and the protection of life and property.

Meteorologist Alan Raymond

3 responses to “NASA Plane Captures Image of Violent Thunderstorm During Research Mission

  1. Greenville Spartanburg Regional Skywarn had a weather net up during these storms. Very impressive radar returns. We had reports of very large hail. Large enough to break the rear window out of a spotters car.

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