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Our (slightly doomed) flight to an atmospheric river

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Air Force C130 plane on tarmac, with illustrated “atmospheric river” lines in the sky

A few weeks back, I found myself on a cramped and loud C130 cargo plane, flying headlong out to the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. The plane and crew were part of the Air Force’s fabled “Hurricane Hunters” — they fly into hurricanes to collect crucial data on the storms.

On this mission, they were after a different phenomenon: an atmospheric river. They’re huge, somewhat mysterious weather systems that supply California with up to half its annual rainfall. Understanding and predicting them is crucial to a state that’s constantly ping-ponging between drought and flood conditions.

Scientists studying atmospheric rivers have partnered with the Air Force for data collection missions, as they do with more stormy and violent hurricanes....

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