NASA's DC-8 hurricane-hunting jet had barely landed on Aug. 18, ending its first flight of the season, when a storm found it.

A little more than an hour after the flying laboratory shut off its engines at the Jacksonville, Fla., Naval Air Station, a dramatic waterspout showed up in the heavy cloud cover. A NASA photo shows the funnel cloud looking like a long, skinny, pointing finger — as if Mother Nature was saying, "Aha! There's the plane that's been spying on me!"

One of the scientists who regularly flies onto storms aboard that DC-8 is University of Utah meteorology professor Edward J. Zipser. (The Aug. 18 flight was to check out instruments, so he wasn't on that one.)

He readily admits to spying on Nature.

"I enjoy learning by watching what Mother Nature decides to do with the storm," said Zipser, reached by telephone Thursday at Jacksonville.

When he isn't learning from nature, he's teaching about it. Zipser was to return to Utah soon after the interview and spend 10 days teaching, before going back to serve for another three weeks as a principal investigator on the DC-8. Besides his classroom duties, he is chairman of the U.'s Department of Meteorology.

The severe storm investigations is called CAMEX-4. It is the fourth in a series of field research investigations whose formal title is the Convection and Moisture Experiment. According to NASA, the project unites researchers from 10 universities, five NASA centers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The flights will continue through Sept. 24, during what is expected to be the most active part of the hurricane season, NASA said. CAMEX scientists will use aircraft, drone vehicles, satellites, ground-based radar and other instruments to monitor storms. They will record temperatures, air pressure, precipitation, wind speed and other storm features from sea level to 65,000 feet.

The information is expected to improve understanding of hurricanes, which will help forecasters.

Two heavily instrumented NASA aircraft are used in the studies: an ER-2 that flies above the storms at 65,000 feet, and the DC-8, which flies right into the storms at 35,000 or 40,000 feet.

Zipser took a break from planning a flight to speak with the Deseret News on Thursday. "We probably plan three flights into these storms for every one we make," he noted.

Over the years, he has flown into more than a dozen severe storms and made more than 100 penetrations into the storms' eyes.

"The exciting thing to a scientist is to make very careful measurements," Zipser said. That can be difficult inside a powerful storm or in its immediate neighborhood.

For last week's tropical storm Chantal, he said, the critical question was, "Why didn't it intensify as expected?"

Every day, computer models indicated the storm might be about to intensify into a hurricane. But it never did.

"We designed some flight patterns that would look at both the environmental winds around the storm and what we call the convective storms," he said. These are thunderstorms in the center of the cyclone-like pattern.

With Chantal, the patterns never became symmetrical. "They stayed on the northeastern flank, and they were quite strong. The airplane got a pretty rough ride going through those."

Many flights are reasonably calm, he added. Last Monday, "we had some pretty good bumps in parts of the storm, but I've had bumps that were that bad on a commercial flight."

Experiencing that ride were 36 researchers or aircraft operators. The plane is like a flying laboratory, with experts making many different measurements.

Some are measuring the ice crystals that churn through the top two-thirds of the storm. Although the tropical storms and hurricanes form in the tropics, their tops are high in the atmosphere — up where the rarified air is freezing. Sometimes the DC-8 flies through such heavy concentrations of snow that it clogs the instruments.

The science of predicting violent weather has a long way to go.

"We are pretty good now at forecasting the track of the storm. We are pretty lousy at forecasting the intensity of the storm, and we're especially lousy at forecasting how much rain will fall and where."

That's unfortunate, because more people are killed by flash flooding and inland flooding caused by hurricanes than are by high wind or storm surges coming ashore from the sea.

To bridge the knowledge gap will take much tinkering with computer models and many flights into hurricanes and tropical storms.

As the investigations continue, the scientists are exposing more of Nature's secrets.

"Every storm is different from every other in some detail," Zipser said, "and that's what makes this business so fascinating and challenging — that there's something new to learn."


E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com