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Scientists use planes as flying weather labs

Saturday 21 Jun 2014 5:28 p.m.

One of the world's most sophisticated flying science labs is soaring its way across the South Island this month.

The specially modified Gulfstream V plane is being used for research that could lead to more accurate weather forecasts.

The Gulfstream V jet is often favoured by celebrities. But the specially equipped plane is home to one of the largest science experiments ever undertaken in New Zealand.

Project DeepWave has brought scientists from five countries to Christchurch.

"They've got a lot of experience doing these kind of experiments all around the world, so it's great to have them here and it's been really great to collaborate with them," says NIWA research meteorologist Richard Turner.

They are studying gravity waves – ripples of energy that move vertically through the atmosphere, similar to a pebble thrown in a pond. Scientists want to know how deep these waves penetrate, and understand more about their role in global circulation patterns.

"Weather patterns, storms, convection are influenced subtly by these gravity wave motions," says Yale University's professor of atmospheric science, Ron Smith. "But we haven't known much about the waves themselves."

The flying lab is fitted with a host of custom-made instruments, measuring everything from temperature to humidity and wind speed.

The team is focusing on the Southern Alps over the two month project because of its consistent wind patterns and uncongested airspace.

The six- to nine-hour flights all happen at night. That's because the research missions use sensitive lasers and infra-red sensors, which can't be used in bright sunlight.

The flights continue until late July.

It is expected the knowledge gained on the missions will eventually help improve the models used to predict your daily weather forecast.

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