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Our (slightly doomed) flight to an atmospheric river

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An ill-fated ‘fly-along’ with the Air Force

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. We got to hitch a ride for the day, alongside former Verge Science reporter Rachel Becker. She’s now a reporter at CalMatters, a nonprofit publication specializing in California politics and policy.

Check out the video above to see how the flight went (spoiler: not at all how it was supposed to go). Then, for a much deeper look into atmospheric rivers, check out Rachel’s excellent story over at CalMatters.