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Andrew Russell

The Convective Storm Iniation Project

This piece was in the Telegraph on the 29th June 2005

Zeus and Thor would approve. Yesterday, I was given a god's-eye view of the birth of storms as thunderclouds roared and lightning flashed.

A team of 50 scientists using radar, lasers and balloons dissected every last detail of thunderstorms crossing southern England in an effort to understand how standard downpours can be distinguished from those likely to cause devastating floods.

Storm chasers: ‘It is a really exciting day because we expect a fresh set of thunderstorms to develop’

The findings could help to provide early warning of storms such as the one that ripped the heart out of the Cornish village of Boscastle in August 2004 - events which are expected to become more common with the advent of global warming.

The three-month Convective Storm Initiation Project, involving the Met Office and researchers in Britain and Germany, is looking for clues to the development of destructive storms. Among other tools, the project, based at the Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire, uses radars to slice open the atmosphere to altitudes of 40 miles and at distances of 120 miles.

Yesterday's storm hunt was planned earlier this week following the issuing of a severe weather warning. The phone rang every few minutes as the team monitored deluges over a 12-hour period. An instrument measuring the winds sent out chirping sounds every 10 seconds as radio receivers crackled with each lightning strike.

"It is a really exciting day because we expect a fresh set of thunderstorms to develop," said Prof Alan Blyth of Leeds University, one of the project leaders, yesterday.

He motioned at the vertical black marks on the screen - the first drops of falling rain. A towering storm cloud was passing over us with its associated cold front. The radar was providing vertical and horizontal slices through the clouds during the resulting deluge. As a chill fell on the control room, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled over the countryside.

Prof Blyth said: "All this stuff to the west of us is rain. It is coming our way and is tremendous - the first we have had for ages and the best storm so far."

A nearby instrument sensitive to bursts of electromagnetic energy recorded an advancing line of lightning strikes, displayed in pink and purple. Reports came in that one of the team's weather balloons had been hit by lightning.

A Cessna aircraft had been grounded by the very weather it was supposed to examine and could not join in, but a Dornier got into the air.

Although a new Met Office computer model has had some success in predicting the location and intensity of thunderstorms a few hours ahead, it is far from perfect. Two variants of the model came up with very different forecasts for the weather around Chilbolton yesterday.

One of the biggest uncertainties lies in predicting at what point huge columns of rising hot air - convection - begin to form storms. A column carries moisture up until it meets a layer of even warmer air which effectively forms a lid, bottling it up. The lid is the top of what is known as a boundary layer - a feature of intense interest.

When moist air breaks through that lid into a mass of cold air above, rain condenses. It then surges up through the cold air to form a classic anvil-shaped thundercloud between the lid and an upper boundary, called the tropopause, at an altitude of six miles.

Forecasting of heavy convective showers and thunderstorms is relatively poor at present, scientists lacking understanding of the tell-tale signs of their formation. The team will take years to stitch the data from dozens of instruments together to produce a full analysis of the processes at work.

Email: andrew.russell at brunel.ac.uk