Tom Friddle has been doing battle with monsoonseason storms for 32 years.
His job of helping keep power running in the Valley for Arizona Public Service Co. customers becomes an exasperating struggle against the elements from mid- July through mid-September each summer.
"We are in survival mode," he said, describing the task the utility’s troubleshooting crews face trying to cope with havoc inflicted on electrical systems when monsoon weather hits.
Fast-moving thunderstorms carrying forceful and erratic winds and powerful, far-reaching lightning blasts result in almost daily power outages, downed transmission lines and damaged equipment somewhere in the Valley, Friddle said.
John Underhill, Friddle’s counterpart at the Valley’s other big power utility, the Salt River Project, sums up their predicament: "There’s not much we can do except put things back up after they’ve fallen down."
Scientist Joe Zehnder wants to give them more of a fighting chance against the forces of nature.
The Arizona State University meteorologist is preparing experiments designed to find ways to more accurately forecast notoriously unpredictable monsoon weather patterns.
He’s leading about 10 fellow researchers in a project — with $1.2 million in National Science Foundation funding — to get an extensive inside look at storm-cloud evolution.
Next summer, the team will aim an array of sophisticated radar, microwave and digital time-lapse imaging devices at large cloud banks that form almost daily during monsoon season over the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson.
The mountains provide reliable "cloud laboratories," Zehnder said. The particular topography of the slopes is just about perfect for radiating the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere to create big, ballooning clouds, he said.
Scientists will observe the formations through cameras and sensing instruments at 10 small monitoring stations in the mountains as well through mobile mechanisms, including an airplane equipped with Doppler radar that will fly around the clouds.
Some of this has been done before. What will be different is that images and atmospheric data will be processed in the laboratory of ASU’s Partnership for Research in Spatial Modeling.
The facility’s advanced computer technology will be used to produce intricate three-dimensional images of actual cloud formations, said director Anshuman Razdan.
The computer models will enable researchers to make one of the most intensive probes ever of the meteorological processes occurring inside developing storm clouds, Zehnder said.
The project excites Philip Krider, a lightning expert with the University of Arizona’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics, who plans to work with Zehnder’s team.
The research promises not only to reveal more about the chemical reactions that produce lightning but perhaps how to predict when it will happen and even where it will strike, Krider said.
Zehnder said the work should provide knowledge for making more certain and quicker forecasts of when and where rain and high winds will occur, and more accurate long-term climate predictions.
Utility troubleshooters Friddle and Underhill said if the project succeeds it will give their crews — and fire departments and other emergency services — the advantage they’ve long sought against the monsoon season’s looming dangers.