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Prescott Scientists Study Inner Workings Of Thunderstorms

Mike Elson/USFS Coconino National Forest

An above-average monsoon season has brought unpredictable storms and flash floods to parts of Northern Arizona. It’s difficult to forecast exactly when and where these storms will occur, but scientists at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University want to change that. They’re launching fleets of drones and weather balloons into newly forming storms in the Black Hills between Prescott and Sedona. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with earth scientist Ronny Schroeder about what he hopes to learn.

Why is it so hard to predict the weather and particularly the monsoon weather we have here in Arizona?

One of the main reasons our monsoon weather is so hard to forecast is the interaction of the atmosphere or lower atmosphere with our terrain here in Arizona. Everyone that lives in Arizona probably knows that we have, especially in northern Arizona, quite complex terrain. The fact that these weather models or forecast models, they aren’t really capable of representing the interaction of the lower atmosphere with that complex terrain.

Your goal is to improve the models we use for forecasting, right?

That is absolutely right. We’re basically studying how these summer storms start and develop using drones. That’s what we use in this research, we use a series of unnamed aircraft also called drones, weather balloons, and then we also deployed a manned aircraft that was equipped with the same instruments that we had on our drones. What these instruments measure is temperature and humidity and the winds.

Okay so you actually go out as a storm starts to form and you launch these drones and weather balloons into it.

Exactly. It’s actually not quite easy to do this, because the timing and the weather is very unpredictable… Usually weather forecast are based on stationary data, basically weather stations and balloon data. We have this opportunity to deploy these unique assets, on drones and manned aircraft, to make continuous measurements both in space and in the vertical extent, so horizontally as well as vertically…. So this is quite unique.

What’s your dream for how this research will be used down the road? Best case scenario, five or ten years down the road, how is this going to change the way we think about weather?

Because weather, in particular the monsoon and severe thunderstorms have an impact on Arizonans, we would like to make better prediction by informing weather models…. This research really serves as a pilot study, a proof of concept. Eventually these data sets or some of them may be assimilated in these complex weather forecast models. Ultimately few years down the road we anticipate that our forecast, our ability to predict when and where these summer storms occur, can be improved.

What got you interested in this research personally?

I’ve always been interested in the weather and the climate, because as we all know the climate is changing. That’s one important aspect why this is important. And of course, I like to do research that actually ultimately helps the people…. If we can make better predictions of where these severe thunderstorms occur, it helps, bottom line, it helps saves lives and saves property.

Thanks so much for speaking with me.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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