Excerpt: 'Weather's Greatest Mysteries Solved!' by Randy Cerveny

Weather?s Greatest Mysteries Solvedamazon.com
Weather?s Greatest Mysteries Solved

"Weather's Greatest Mysteries Solved!" by climatologist Randy Cerveny connects major historical events -- such as the extinction of the T-Rex and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s -- with climatic conditions and discusses how our changing climate will impact our future. It explores the discovery of new weather, such as "microburst" storms and new types of cloud formations. The book explains how today's climate affects a surprising array of global events -- for example, the number of rainy days in Bolivia have a significant impact on a year's total cocaine production there. It also looks at research that attempts to forecast weather for the next 10,000 years, which is essential information for mapping the future of the environments and communities that exist in different regions of the world.

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Chapter 17: The Mystery of the Crashing Plane and the A-Bomb

After experiencing ten thousand years of weather, one would think that the people of modern civilization would have achieved a fundamentally complete knowledge of all types of weather. We wouldn't still be discovering any new types of weather, right? And, in any case, our own horrific weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear bombs, for instance -- couldn't possibly give us any clues about any such undiscovered weather? Enter our next weather detective, the renowned meteorologist Dr. Ted Fujita.

Time: June 1975

Location: JFK International Airport, New York City, New York, North America

The investigator slowly shook his head as he looked at the still-smoldering remains of the crashed airplane. He pulled out a paperback book–sized cassette recorder from his rain-drenched trench coat pocket and flipped it on.

"Continuing notes on the crash of Eastern Airlines 66 -- a Boeing 727," he spoke into the machine. "Latest word is that the total death toll is now over a hundred people. Pilot and copilot were both killed. We have fourteen survivors -- including two flight attendants who were stationed in the back row. That's not surprising given that the plane's largest intact section -- about forty-five feet long -- is the burned-out portion of the rear fuselage."

He glanced across the now-closed Rockaway Boulevard to the swampy field in which the plane had first crashed. "It appears that the aircraft initially crashed into the field adjoining the airport a full twenty-three hundred feet short of the runway." He tucked the recorder under his arm for a moment, flipped through his small spiral notebook, then pulled the recorder out, and once again spoke into the small machine. "Twenty-three hundred feet short of Runway 22-L. Eastern 66 then hit three of the towers supporting the runway approach lights."

He paused, shaking his head a bit. "In perhaps a final heroic attempt to regain control of the aircraft, Eastern 66 lifted and cleared the next three towers -- but then proceeded to take out the next four."

"After smashing into the swampy field adjoining the airport, the largest sections of the aircraft -- including the tail section -- spun across Rockaway Boulevard, ripping through a wire fence before coming to rest."

"Jack." The investigator's colleague walked up through the mucky grasses at the edge of the airport runway. "Sorry to bother you but the media are clamoring for an explanation. Do we have any ideas yet to give them?"

The investigator shook his head. "I thought perhaps the plane might have gotten caught in the gust front from that line of thunderstorms in the area at the time of the crash, but the timing just doesn't match up. From the tower, I learned that there was a small Beechcraft Baron that touched down on this very runway just three minutes before Eastern 66 made its final approach. Sure seems to me that a large-scale gust front would have impacted that small Beechcraft a hell of a lot more than this massive Boeing 727!"

His colleague nodded. "But then what caused Flight 66 to literally fall out of the sky some two thousand feet before the runway?"

The investigator pondered the question for a long moment as the drizzle continued to fall around them. He clicked off the cassette recorder and then resolutely looked at his colleague. "I think, Jim, we have to bring in a weather expert on this one. And for this one," he said, glancing over the wreckage of Eastern Flight 66, "I'm pretty sure that we're going to need the best in the business!"

The expert who was brought in to investigate the deadly Eastern Airlines 66 crash was the legendary meteorologist Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita. In conducting that investigation, he made a startling discovery of a completely unknown type of weather, an event that we now call a microburst. Before we delve into the science of microbursts, let's first introduce the man who is credited with their discovery. Ted Fujita was born on October 23, 1920, in Kitakyushu City, Japan. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the Meiji College of Technology in 1943 and, by the next year, became an assistant professor of physics at that institute where he began to study weather. By 1953, he earned his doctoral degree from Tokyo University in 1953 with an analytical study of typhoons.

But tropical typhoons weren't Fujita's main interests -- he was much more intrigued with continental severe storms, the kind that produce tornadoes. When he personally observed a severe Japanese thunderstorm during the summer of 1947 from the wonderful vantage point of a mountain observatory, he proceeded to write a detailed letter about the storm to one of the distinguished meteorologists of the time, Dr. Horace Byers of the University of Chicago. Fujita's letter relayed his speculations about possible conflicting wind patterns inside the storm. Byers was so impressed with Fujita's detailed reasoning that he convinced Fujita to come to the University of Chicago in 1953. It was at that university that Fujita was finally able to devote the rest of his life to the violent weather that so intrigued him. After becoming an associate professor in geophysical sciences in 1962, he quickly reached the rank of full professor by 1965. As part of his work at Chicago, he adroitly directed the Satellite and Mesometeorology Research project and then the Wind Research Laboratory. He is probably best known for the creation of the F-scale, which is used to rank tornadoes based on their destruction. In regard to our current mystery, Dr. Fujita was asked in 1976 to investigate the gruesome crash of Eastern Flight 66 at JFK Airport in New York.

What made Fujita the right man to investigate that crash? In short, Ted Fujita was a researcher cut from a different cloth than the "typical scientist" -- he was a master of inductive logic. Inductive reasoning is the process of arriving at a conclusion from a limited set of data rather than from all possible observations. Commonly, if done correctly, inductive reasoning is considered "an intuitive leap." Such reasoning is markedly different from the traditional type of scientific analysis, called deductive reasoning. Deduction -- the type of reasoning used by Sherlock Holmes in the A. Conan Doyle stories -- involves arriving at a conclusion based totally on previously known facts (called the premises). If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.

Inductive reasoning is generally considered to be less powerful than deduction because it is much easier to go astray by using induction. The "flaw" of induction, according to many experts, is that the generalization can break down when new facts materialize because induction involves extrapolation from a limited set of observations. If a person says, based on the available knowledge, that all baseballs are white in color, he or she can be proven wrong if a baseball of a different color is found. Conversely, deduction involves arriving at the conclusion directly from the observations. Deduction is a step-by-step process of drawing conclusions based on previously known truths. For example, if all fish in a given pond have gills and you catch a fish from that pond, you can deduce that it will have gills. A fundamental problem with deduction is that, if one's initial facts are later proven wrong, the logical chain of reasoning breaks down.

The trouble with using deductive reasoning for an open-ended system such as our atmosphere is that rarely, if ever, are all of the facts known. Consequently, even though most scientists say that they are using deduction -- basing their theories on a framework of facts -- that framework of facts is, by necessity, limited to only the available set of observations. So, all atmospheric scientists use inductive reasoning to some extent -- but some are a lot better at it than others.

Fujita's genius was his well-honed inductive ability -- in being able to extract a brilliant fundamental principle from a quite-often limited set of facts. One of his colleagues, Dr. James Wilson at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado, commented upon Fujita's death in 1998 about this aspect of Fujita's scientific personality: "He would theorize how things work, and it often was left to the rest of us to come along and prove his theories." He continued, "There was an insight [Fujita] had, this gut feeling. He often had ideas way before the rest of us could even imagine them." In the well-ordered world of science, such a renegade attitude led to occasional resentment. Interestingly, many scientists don't like flashes of inspiration or gut feelings. They prefer to undertake their scientific investigations in a straightforward -- if rather dull -- step-by-step sequence of testing. Wilson noted that Fujita "was a controversial character at times because of the way he did his science. But there was no question that he had insight that very few people had."

Given his preferred methods of investigation, Fujita was not overly fond of computers. This is because inductive reasoning is the complete antithesis of computers, which by their very nature are the ultimate tools for deductive reasoning. The conclusions that computers reach are always inexorably constrained by the initial data fed into them. Computer analysts even have an interesting term that encapsulates the enormous problem inherent in this deductive aspect of computers: GIGO, or Garbage In, Garbage Out. Because Fujita realized that potential flaw in computers could severely limit their usefulness, he therefore seldom used them in his research. A colleague of Fujita's, Chicago meteorologist Duane Stiegler, noted after Fujita's death that "he used to say that the computer doesn't understand these things."

So how did Fujita inductively attack the mystery of Eastern Flight 66's demise?

I was fortunate to have met the brilliant diminutive atmospheric scientist many years ago at a meteorology conference in Phoenix. He told me that some of his first thoughts about the Eastern Flight 66 crash related back to his days in Japan during World War II. He had been one of the first scientists to fly over the desolate city of Nagasaki just weeks after the atomic bombs had been dropped. With that vantage point, Fujita remembered the very particular shock wave– damage pattern of buildings and trees in that city -- a radial or starburst pattern emitting out from the central point of the city below where the atomic bomb had exploded. This was in marked contrast to the spiral type of damage that Fujita had observed countless times over the US Great Plains after tornadoes had devastated an area. Trees and buildings felled by tornadoes often demonstrate distinctive spiral patterns that indicate the violent rotation of winds.

But the damage pattern that Fujita saw with the Eastern Flight 66 crash debris was radiating from a central point, sometimes termed straight-line wind damage -- not spiral! So, Fujita inferred, Eastern Flight 66 was not brought down by flying through a tornado. Were there any other alternatives? Now, perhaps in our post-9/11 world, we might have concluded that the airliner must have been the target of a terrorist bomb -- after all, the damage patterns for the Flight 66 debris and the Nagasaki atom bomb were distinctly similar. Luckily for meteorology (and for future airliners), Fujita hadn't eliminated all of the other possible options.

One intriguing possibility that occurred to him was that perhaps a storm cell could sometimes create its own natural "air bomb." What if, he asked, a small storm somehow generated a sudden incredible downward blast of air -- perhaps with winds of a hundred miles an hour or more? Wouldn't such a blast create the same kind of straight-line damage pattern that one saw with the Eastern Flight 66 crash?

Previous research had shown that the Great Plains–type of storm undergoes a specific life cycle. When a thunderstorm cell -- a small individual storm -- begins its existence, it consists of air being violently uplifted into the upper atmosphere. As the air rises, it cools and eventually reaches its dewpoint, the temperature at which condensation occurs -- and a cloud forms. As the thunderstorm cell matures, some parts of the thunderstorm cell containing raindrops begin to fall and begin to pull the air down with them. At this stage, the storm has both updrafts and downdrafts. Finally, as the thunderstorm cell begins to dissipate, the overall motion in the storm is downward.

What if, thought Fujita, occasionally the downward winds were incredibly concentrated from a single thunderstorm cell -- perhaps when a sudden blast of cold rain forced the air down? We have long known that large-scale downdrafts -- sinking air associated with a line of thunderstorms -- can occur. For example, in the desert, these massive downdrafts, which crash into the ground and spread outward, have been observed to create massive lens-shaped walls of dust. Such dust walls are commonly called haboobs in the Middle East. These gust fronts are formed along the leading edges of large domes of rain-cooled air that result from the merger of cold downdrafts from adjacent thunderstorm cells. At the leading edge of this gust front, there is the dynamic clash between the cool, out-flowing air and the warm thunderstorm inflow that produces the characteristic wind shift, temperature drop, and gusty winds that precede a thunderstorm. These gust fronts were long thought to be the main wind shear threat presented by thunderstorms to aircraft during takeoff or landing.

But, Fujita theorized, what if much smaller individual thunderstorm cells could produce concentrated downdrafts of greater intensity than the more massive gust fronts? The University of Chicago professor conjectured that the crash of Eastern Flight 66 might be due to the impact of a small-scale, jetlike downdraft that Fujita labeled a microburst. Specifically, he defined a microburst as "a small downburst with its outburst, damaging winds extending only 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) or less from a central origin point. In spite of its small horizontal scale, an intense microburst could induce damaging winds as high as 75 m/sec (168 mph)." The key point here is the size of the event. While a downburst involves any sudden downdraft of air, a microburst is a concentrated, small-scale air blast.

In essence, one can picture a microburst as a massive air bomb -- a bomb that explodes air down to the ground and then sends it abruptly outward with wind speeds comparable to those of tornadoes. That downward blast of air produces massive wind shear, a rapid change in wind direction or speed. A microburst can produce the severe wind shear with horizontal wind speed changes greater than fifteen knots (roughly seventeen mph) or vertical wind speed changes greater than five hundred feet per minute (around five to six mph in the vertical direction).

Most aircraft crashes involving microbursts occur when planes are attempting to land. As the aircraft makes its final approach to the runway, the pilots are slowing the plane to an appropriate speed. When the blasting winds of the microburst hit the plane, the pilots would experience a marked reduction in their forward airspeed, caused by ramming into the ferocious headwinds created by the microburst.

I once encountered the same situation as those unfortunate pilots when I was driving a high-profile storm chase van on the ground. We were traveling on a bridge at sixty miles per hour when we encountered the headwinds of a microburst -- and literally came to a sudden stop as we smashed into the hundred-plus-mph winds of the microburst.

What I did at that time is exactly what a pilot before Fujita's research would have done: I let up on the accelerator and tried to slow down. And that instinctive impulse could be fatal for a pilot. What we know now is when an aircraft encounters a microburst, a pilot inexperienced with these odd weather events usually tries to compensate the massive headwinds by suddenly decreasing the plane's airspeed. But as the aircraft proceeds to travel through the microburst, abruptly it no longer encounters a headwind but instead is pushed by an incredibly strong tailwind. This causes a sudden decrease in the amount of air flowing across the wings -- the critical principle to maintaining flight. Consequently, the sudden loss of air moving across the wings causes the aircraft to literally drop out of the air.

Following Fujita's groundbreaking discovery of these microburst events, we now know that the best way to deal with a microburst in an aircraft is to increase speed as soon as the abrupt drop in airspeed is noticed. This will allow the aircraft to remain in the air when traveling through the tailwind portion of the microburst and also pass through the microburst with less difficulty. One thing that we have discovered since Fujita's time is that commercial jet aircraft are much more vulnerable to a microburst than small planes. In particular, we have learned that a single-engine prop plane can more quickly speed up or maneuver to avoid the consequences of a microburst, while a jet will have a slower response lag that will make it especially vulnerable to the winds of a microburst.

But what causes these microbursts -- Fujita's small-scale air bombs -- to occur in the first place?

Microbursts are the result of air being rapidly accelerated down from the mid- and upper parts of the thunderstorm to the ground. That downflow can occur due to several factors: by air being pulled down by rain or hail, by the increases in air density as the air is cooled by rain, and by the cooling produced with melting ice crystals. These three forces, if strong enough, can create massively intense and sudden downward movements of air.

One aspect of microbursts that we have learned since Fujita's initial work is their strikingly short lifetime. Most microbursts last only five to fifteen minutes. Such limited duration, coupled with their small spatial extent, makes microburst detection and prediction very difficult. But we have made significant progress in detecting microbursts through the use of Doppler radar.

Normal radar bounces microwaves off of storms. By measuring the time it takes the microwaves to return and the strength of those returning microwaves, normal radar can determine the distance and intensity of the storm. Doppler radar extends that principle by measuring the slight change in microwave wavelength that occurs if the target of the microwaves is moving away or toward the radar antenna. By doing so, Doppler radar can establish whether the storm -- or the winds within the storm -- are moving toward or away from the station. Where normal radar indicates a storm's location, Doppler radar is akin to a weather x-ray machine since by looking inside the storm, it can tell which way the winds within the storm are moving.

Consequently, Doppler radar can detect wind shear -- abrupt changes in wind speed and direction -- the key characteristics of a microburst. In the years following the Eastern Flight 66 tragedy, airports were fitted with Terminal Doppler Weather Radar (TDWR), which can detect microbursts. And many, many lives have undoubtedly been saved.

In solving the mystery of the crashed plane, Fujita proved that inductive logic can be as powerful and useful in scientific research as its more commonly used counterpart, deductive reasoning. And in using it, Ted Fujita discovered an entirely new form of weather.

Time: June 2010

Location: JFK International Airport, New York City, New York, North America

A flash of lightning lit up the interior of the Boeing 727 flight deck.

The pilot was all business -- this was the point when she earned her paycheck.

Damn, she thought, those thunderstorm cells are too close for comfort. This is definitely going to be a bumpy landing.

"Crossways Air Flight 234 now on final approach to R-22," she heard her copilot radio to the tower.

"Take it easy," she muttered to herself as the aircraft wings rocked slightly in the strong winds of the thunderstorm.

"Crossways Air 234! We have a microburst alert signal for your runway! Abort landing."

The pilot immediately throttled up the engines -- markedly increasing their speed -- and pulled the flight wheel back. For a long moment broken only by the flashes of lightning from the nearby storms, the plane rose gracefully back into the sky at a steep angle. "Radio the tower to give us a safe reroute," she commanded her copilot. He nodded -- all business on the flight deck.

As they reached a safe altitude, she keyed the microphone to the back passenger section. "Hello, everybody, this is the Captain Poltanos from the flight deck. Sorry for the delay, but we saw a bit of rough weather ahead of us and to play it safe, we're going to make another pass and try again. We should be safely on the ground in about fifteen minutes."

A loud chorus of groans from the inconvenienced but safe passengers filtered through the cabin door.

Acknowledgement: The author thanks Steve Koppes and the people at the University of Chicago Media and Ron Holle for his stunning photography (and good friendship).

Excerpted From: Randy Cerveny, Weather's Greatest Mysteries Solved! (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books) Copyright 2009. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.