Scientists Chase Snowflakes During the Warmest Winter Ever

INSIDE A CAVERNOUS hangar at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility along the Virginia coast, a gleaming white P-3 Orion aircraft sits parked under harsh floodlights. It’s just after midnight and a group of scientists, technicians and graduate students cluster underneath a wing, peering at a 5-inch crack in one of the ailerons that the pilot uses to maneuver the plane.

Their disappointment is palpable. The eight-person team was preparing to board the research aircraft for a 10-hour flight through a massive snowstorm stretching across upstate New York and Canada as part of a new project funded by NASA to dissect the inner workings of winter storms. The researchers want to know how the bands of snow form, why some storms produce snow and others don’t, and why certain conditions lead to ice crystals, while others cause snowflakes. Their ultimate goal is better winter forecasts for the 55 million residents of the Northeast, and improved weather models that can be used for the rest of the US. NASA has dubbed the three-year study IMPACTS, or the Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms.