Thunder Drop: Life Inside a Thunderstorm

Thunderstorm

Those of you who know me know that I’m pretty intrigued by the weather and how it works. The single factor I’m mainly interested in though are cumulonimbus clouds…thunderstorms. As a child I remember kneeling on my bed peering out through the window into the night sky waiting for flashes of lightning and the accompanying thunder. Those flashes, those rumbles didn’t come from a machine or an animal, they came from the deep depths of natures most violent assemblage.

Thankfully over the last few years I’ve managed to learn a great deal about the clouds that form thunderstorms, what happens inside them, how they work and so. They’re a no go area for aircraft and I’m trained to recognise them before they’ve formed in order to let the flight crews know they’re around so they can avoid them.

We all know that thunderstorms produce thunder and lightning bu they a produce a huge arsenal of other phenomena too including: severe torrential downpours, hail (sometimes the size of baseballs), incredible gusts of wind, updrafts and downdrafts (where you can loose a 1,000 or more feet in a few seconds in an airplane) and worst of all tornadoes.

No one’s ever really been able to say what it’s like inside a thunderstorm though. People have been in them, flown through them but they didn’t live to tell the tale. That was until the incredible story of Lt Col William Rankin (aka The Man Who Rode The Thunder) came about in 1959. He was a marine corps aviator flying the supersonic F-8U Crusader. Ahead of him was a thunderstorm. No problem, the aircraft could easily fly over it at 50,000ft (the top of this thunderstorm was about 44,000ft, they can get to 60,000ft though). Then, right atop the thunderstorm, the engine failed…it wouldn’t come back online either. He wasn’t wearing a high altitude pressure suit (the higher you go the less air there is – think of taking a bottle of water on a plane) he had to eject.

The F-8U Crusader

He was immediately subjected to explosive decompression, severe wind and extensive frostbite (it was -50°C up there, then add the wind chill). His mouth, nose, eyes and ears started bleeding, the lower pressure having ruptured capillaries. The gases in his body expanded, his intestines, stomach and other organs expanding perhaps 3 times their normal size. He remarked in his book “I briefly glanced down at my abdomen and it had expanded to a size as if I were pregnant”. Then he went into the thunderstorm where things didn’t get much better.

His parachute was set to automatically open at 10,000ft, but the pressure being lower in a thunderstorm tricked it and it opened at about 15,000ft. It should take him less than 10 minutes to reach the ground. 40 minutes later he landed. The incredible updrafts in the storm kept him aloft for much, much longer. He described the lightning as blue blades several feet thick close enough the touch, he felt the thunder shuddering through every bone in his body, the rain, so intense, almost caused him to drown, and then the hail, the size of baseballs, whacking into him.

He survived to tell the tale. To my knowledge no other human being as ever experienced such an occurrence since.

…the unbelievable torture of a thunderstorm, the fright of it, the terrible physical beating, the twisting and turning and tumbling, the awesomeness of lightning so close it could almost be touched, the vibrating horror of thunder never meant for human ears, the fierce pounding of hail, the drenching of rain so torrential it might just as well have been an ocean suspended in the air…

– Lt Col William Rankin, from his book The Man Who Rode The Thunder

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Climate and Weather: Let me put it simply

If you ever plan to irritate me, bring up this subject. For too long I’ve had people coming to me saying ‘look at the weather, what ever happened to climate change?’ People seem to think climate change is a load of tosh because of the weather on a specific day. What are you on about you crazy people?

The fact is we all know the difference. I sat down to watch the news this morning and it finally struck me as to how we all know the difference. A term used repeatedly over the last few years…economic climate. There it is. The economic climate isn’t what’s happening right now, its what has been happening over the last few years and what will continue into the next few. So why oh why do we get so confused over climate change? Perhaps one of you could tell me.

So here it is, pure and simple.

Climate – A long term trend of weather averaged over a statistically signifacnt period of time

Weather – Look out of your window. That’s the weather!

This video, whilst highly amusing, also does a great job at putting the point across.

It’s Raining CH4

The sky is overcast, hazy and orange, there’s a light wind. It’s a tad chilly too, -170°C. Water’s frozen as hard as steel. And yet it appears to be raining. Large globules of liquid slowly float like snowflakes to the surface.

We are ofcourse not in some bizarre and crazy sci-fi TV series, but on the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Saturn's Rings, the small moon Epimetheus and Titan

Titan’s a pretty exciting place. It’s the only moon in the entire Solar System with an appreciable atmosphere (it’s thicker than the Earth’s!) and it’s bigger than the planet Mercury! Continue reading

Airborne Atmospheric Research

My boss came up into the control tower the other day and said to me ‘The METMAN is coming in for a month at the end of February, we should be able to get fam flights’.

This got me extremely excited, in fact I am yet to calm down! First though, let me explain to you what ‘The METMAN’ is. The METMAN is an airplane. It’s a BAe 146 that is owned by BAe Systems and operated by Directflight. It is a result of a collaboration between the Met Office and the Natural Environment Research Council and it is established as part of the National Centre for Atmospheric Sciences.

What does this mean? Basically it’s an atmospheric research aircraft. It has lots of scientific equipment stuck to different parts of it, it goes flying, takes lots of measurements, and then scientists have loads of fun trying to make sense of it all.

The METMAN

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Why’s it been so cold?

If you didn’t know, Britain’s been a tad on the chilly side recently. Even all the way down here in Exeter it’s almost reached -17°C.

So why has it been so teeth chatteringly cold? Well, I’m going to answer this with the basic and limited knowledge I already have. It depends on a number of factors. The big factor is the jet stream. A fast moving belt of wind high up in the atmosphere. I won’t go into the physics of how, why and what’s going on but the stream sometimes moves and meanders here and there, much like a river.

This moves for several different reasons. The Sun also has an effect of the jet stream, and this is what a lot of people think may have happened recently – the flood in Pakistan and so on.  Continue reading

Megacryometeors!

I’m an aviation met observer and have been fascinated with the weather for a while. Our atmosphere, our thin blue line, is truly amazing.

I can’t quite remember when I first came across these megacryometeors but the name instantly caught me, just for its sheer cool soundingness. I set out to find what they were. As it turns out, no one really knows. We know what they are. As the name suggests, they are giant ice balls that fall from the skies, but we don’t know anything about how they form and why they exist.

Suspected megacryometeor

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