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NASA IMPACTS mission aims to better understand snowstorms with help from Millersville University

The multi-year mission includes flying planes in and around snowstorms, as well as deploying weather balloons in the storms.

MILLERSVILLE, Pa. — Scientists at NASA are flying into snowstorms in an effort to better understand winter weather events on the East Coast of the United States.

Dr. John Yorks is a deputy principal investigator for the Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Storms, also known as the IMPACTS mission.

His team flies planes both into and around storms, using remote sensing technology, radar, dropsondes and more to study the systems.

“We fly an old U2 spy plane, it’s called an ER2," said Yorks. "So that has radars and other remote sensing instruments, similar to what we have in space. So they’re kind of mapping the vertical and horizontal structure of the clouds and the precipitation… and then we have a lower flying airplane, the NASA P3, which actually flies into the clouds of the snowstorm. And so we’re measuring particle shape and size.”

In particular, the team is looking into the formation and structure of snow bands, which can be hard to forecast and cause major differences in snow totals.

Millersville University is also helping in the study, launching weather balloons during these storms in conjunction with other universities. 

Dr. Richard Clark, chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at Millersville University, says his team of professors and students will travel to these snowstorms to help collect data.

“We’re driving three hours to Brick, New Jersey or we’re driving three hours to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania and…we set up and we launch a series of balloons while everyone else who has that capacity launches their balloon. We all launch at the same time,” says Clark.

Other universities will launch weather balloons at the same time as Millersville University does. This helps researchers get a better view of the atmosphere, and helps provide a cross-section of what it looks like.

Students from the Millersville University meteorology program tell FOX43 that getting to help conduct research with NASA is like a dream come true. It’s also a great way to connect what they are learning in the classroom to what they’re seeing outside.

“Being able to compare what I’m learning in school and actually being able to apply it to what I’m seeing in the field helps me as a meteorologist so much,” says student Cameron Gonteski. “I’m able to see both aspects of, ya know, say the mathematics of what we’re learning behind it and what I’m actually seeing in the field.”

The multi-year IMPACTS mission will continue into winter 2023. Then, scientists will analyze the data with the ultimate goal of improving weather forecast models, helping both forecasters and the people impacted by these types of events.

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