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Chasing big storms for science

DAREDEVIL scientists who love bad weather are chasing storms and getting up close for the Shanghai weather bureau. Ni Yinbin reports.

Heavy debris raining down, uprooted trees and dangling live electrical wires make most people run the other way and batten down the hatches when a typhoon hits.

But there is a group of risk-takers, adrenalin pumping, who actually chase after violent storms and enjoy working under dangerous conditions, getting up close and personal with the power of nature.

They are the so-called storm chasers of the Shanghai Meteorological Bureau, officially known as the bureau's Observation and Information Division.

They can drive 1,000 kilometers at high speed to get the readings on a big one. Eventually pilotless aircraft will also be used.

Since 2007, the three-man team has been pursuing storms every year in their four-ton, specially equipped van-like "typhoon car." They send up weather balloons, take readings on the spot and relay them to the bureau.

The crew's latest task was chasing Kompasu at the end of last month and so far they have followed six typhoons, including Morakot last year, Fung-wong in 2008 and Pabuk, Sepat and Wipha in 2007.

"We try to get as close as possible to a storm and collect information about it, inputting information into our database to help analyze storms' structure and path," team director Zhao Bingke told Shanghai Daily.

"Our job shortens the difference between typhoons and forecasters," said the 46-year-old scientist from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Few weather forecasters have a first-hand understanding of typhoons since most observe storms through satellite images, he said.

"You'll never feel it if you don't go to the spot," Zhao added.

The other core members are Fang Pingzhi, a 36-year-old PhD holder from Tongji University, and Shao Demin, a 62-year-old senior engineer from the Shanghai Meteorological Bureau.

Each member has different duties and roles but their goal is the same: getting hard-to-get information about a typhoon.

With a coastline of 18,000 kilometers, China is a huge typhoon target and gets hit by an average of 9.3 such storms a year. These inflict huge damage on the economy of coastal cities and provinces, including Shanghai. In 2006, severe tropical storm Bilis killed more than 800 people, with direct economic losses of nearly 27 billion yuan (US$4 billion).

"It is dangerous, a mission could end up in a car crash and we could all be killed," said Zhao simply. "But what I worry most is about getting what we need, the valuable information."

The team gets as close as possible to a coming typhoon and sends up sensitive sounding balloons with equipment to measure wind speed, atmospheric pressure, temperature, moisture content and other storm factors. Getting accurate readings is difficult in a violent storm.

Zhao is torn: he wants a powerful storm - but not so powerful that his men's safety is threatened.

"After all, the violent storms are the most attractive to us," he said with an animated expression.

One of the biggest challenges - and part of the appeal - is the unpredictability of storms. Zhao recalled the team's first mission in 2007 to chase typhoon Pabuk, which ended up in failure, because they missed it.

Expecting Pabuk to land on August 8 in Zhangpu, Fujian Province, Zhao and his crew rushed 1,000 kilometers and waited for the typhoon to come three days later.

When they arrived, the wind was powerful, blowing debris about and toppling bicycles. They were encouraged; but satisfaction turned to defeat on the morning of August 8 when they realized the storm had unexpectedly made landfall in Taiwan and was downgraded to a tropical storm. Winds dropped and the cloud cluster moved on to Guangdong Province.

"We lacked experience that first time," Zhao said. "But the good thing was that we figured out how to protect our equipment in the van from the rain."

But victory lay just ahead. Nine days later they were still in Fujian, in Chongwu Town, a kilometer from the coast. There they successfully observed - and were right inside - the eye of typhoon Sepat, ninth typhoon of the season.

The wind got violent at around 8pm on August 17. Zhao and his team drove as close as possible to the seashore. Their four-ton vehicle started to sway as the wind got stronger, a good sign for storm-chasers. They secured the van at four angles with finger-thick steel cable.

The men themselves, wearing simple rain gear and carrying equipment, struggled to trudge against the wind toward the shore. It was three hours before the expected landfall of Sepat and the wind speed was 117 kilometers an hour.

That's when the real work began - sending up balloons every three hours. The balloons, which are three meters high and 1.5 meters in diameter, were filled with helium from the heavy tanks they carried. They attached GPS and measuring equipment.

"Usually it only takes minutes to fill a balloon, but in this typhoon it took half an hour," Zhao recalled. "We all had to hold it down as the big ball was likely to be blown away."

Twice the balloon was almost filled when a savage gust of wind, "sharp as a knife," twisted the balloon and tore it away, leaving Zhao with a handful of wrinkled material.

They continued the battle and eventually sent up nine balloons to report on typhoon Sepat that arrived as expected at 1am on August 18.

When it hit, coverings for the van's roof equipment were blown away. They turned on all the equipment, including the wind-profiler on the roof of the van to scan and record sections of the storm and ultrasonic apparatus to measure temperature and velocity.

"When the typhoon's eye reached us and we were inside, the wind's velocity suddenly dropped along with the atmospheric pressure, and the rain lessened. The clouds looked weird but it felt marvelous," said Zhao.

That was the only time the team was lucky enough to catch the typhoon's eye, generating important data and providing a better understanding of storms.

The eye of the storm is not the peaceful center often described in books, Zhao said. Gusts continued and so did the rain.

But eyes vary from storm to storm, Zhao said.

For example, the eye of typhoon Saomai in 2006 was extremely peaceful, which made fishermen think the typhoon had passed, so they no longer took precautions. But when the rest of the storm arrived it caused huge casualties.


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