Plymouth State Research Could Help Drivers Avoid Dangerous Conditions

Jan 23, 2015

A sudden snow squall led to this recent 35-car pile up on Interstate 93.
Credit Ben Baldwin

    

As we all know, winter weather is a reality of life here in New Hampshire. More snow appears to be headed our way this weekend.

But until the storm actually gets here, it’s often hard to know if it’s going to be a wintry mix or freezing rain, or how dangerous driving conditions could be in certain areas of the state.

Research underway at Plymouth State University could help more accurately forecast winter storms.

The Snow Level Radar experiment is a joint effort between the university’s meteorology department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sam Miller is an associate professor of meteorology at Plymouth State.

He joins Morning Edition to talk about the project.

What’s the idea behind the experiment?

The device, the Snow Level Radar, attempts to measure the point above the radar device where the precipitation changes phase. For example, it may begin as snow and then melt and change into rain at some different altitude above the radar.

And what are your goals for this? How accurate do you see forecasts possibly getting?

It’s part of a larger project that we have gotten started on about two years ago to understand better the different kinds of conditions that lead to the different aspects of wintry mix you brought up. For example, freezing rain or ice pellets.

This device will show us for example the depth of a warm layer loft in which snow might melt, changing into rain. And also, the depth of a very cold layer near the surface of the earth in which that rain may re-encounter temperatures below freezing and then freeze on contact with the surface of the earth.

What do you hope to do with that data in the long run? How do you hope to implement that on a wider scope some day?

The first objective is to better understand the conditions associated with different kinds of precipitation in Plymouth. For example, rain, freezing rain, ice pellets, snow; heavy, wet snow versus light, fluffy snow. That can then be broadened out to a larger area of New England.

It will also help to ultimately improve the forecasts – we hope it will, at least – improve the forecasts in the area in the winter time generated over at the Gray, Maine forecast office.

We’ve certainly seen recently that it can be very tricky to forecast localized conditions. The study is looking at being able to better predict hazardous driving conditions. Is there a public safety aspect to this research?

Absolutely. As you said, these conditions can change on a very localized scale; over a distance of just a few miles in one direction or another. It might be ice pellets, also known as sleet, or freezing rain. It could be snow, and that’s because of the complex terrain of New England. We have valleys that might trap bubbles of cold air. So you could have freezing rain falling in a valley, but on the top of a hill, it might be rain.

Yes, there’s definitely a public safety aspect. I just had the pleasure of driving back from Plattsburg, New York on Sunday night through 180 miles of freezing rain and witnessing more car accidents than I can count. If we could improve our ability to forecast those conditions, to be able to tell the different for example from freezing rain on this stretch of highway versus sleet on this stretch of the highway, that might give people a little bit more time to think about where they want to drive.

And at some point that could be implemented in real time for people with maybe an app or some kind of online device?

One would think, yes.

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