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Local OLYMPEX rain research project picks perfect winter for study

A temporary radar takes cloud and rain measurements along the shores of Lake Quinault.

The massive OLYMPEX research project in the Olympic Mountains has just been completed, and wow, did they pick the perfect autumn and winter to conduct a rain study!

Shannon O'Donnell has been involved with the project and provides this update on the research and what all went into the months of soggy measurements:

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It rains a lot in Western Washington, but how do we really determine how much? Professor Robert Houze at the University of Washington just wrapped up the OLYMPEX campaign to try and answer that very question. He was the principal investigator on a field project that was years in the making.

"It's very spotty it's very difficult to catch it and measure it," Houze said. "It's harder than just sticking your thermometer up and measuring temperature. People have been trying to do this for thousands of years, and it's still a difficult problem."

In an effort to solve this problem, NASA launched the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite, or GPM, in 2014. The GPM orbits the earth 16 times per day, recording rain and snowfall with each pass. To make sure it's getting it right from above, measurements of that precipitation must be taken from down below. A series of field campaigns have taken place around the world to verify the satellite's measurements. The latest mission took place this fall and winter right here in our backyard, where complicated terrain and heavy rain and snow come together on the Olympic Peninsula.

"Before the satellite was launched, I was given the task of trying to think of a place -- I can see that from my office!" he said,

Anyone can do a field study just by putting a rain gauge outside, but a study of this magnitude is so much more.

"A campaign is more like a military campaign -- airplanes, ships, ground operations," Houze said.

KOMO photographer Steve Ramaley and I visited the OLYMPEX ground crews this winter. University of Washington Research Scientist Angela Rowe was busy manning the NPOL radar site near the Washington coast, high on a remote hill overlooking the choppy Pacific Ocean to the west and the jagged Olympic Mountains to the east.

"We know it's going to rain here, and in a very short distance we have ocean and terrain," Rowe said. "If the satellite can get it right here, we're in good shape."

But getting out here isn't easy. The gravel road up the hill is a makeshift, muddy route, and Angela often has to navigate it alone in the pitch black of a winter's night.

"I take it slow -- after these big rain events, you have to be careful. The potholes keep getting bigger, watch out for animals -- we take it easy and take our time and enjoy being out in the middle of nowhere," Rowe said.

While she's far from the big city, she's never alone.

"We have a rule there are always 2 of us up here...we're a bit isolated," she said.

Angela's partner on the day we visited was Greg Herman, a graduate student from Colorado State. They were attempting to launch a radiosonde-a weather balloon carrying instrumentation high into the atmosphere-on a particularly gusty December afternoon. The first try didn't go off too well with strong winds tangling the strings and pulling at the balloon.

After regrouping in the shelter of a small trailer, we go for the launch a second time -- success! And while it's been a stormy winter, those involved in the OLYMPEX campaign wouldn't have it any other way.

"This is exactly what we want, and I'm really excited about it," Rowe said. "I'll never complain about the rain!"

Tell that to radar meteorologist Alycia Gilliland, stationed miles inland along the shores of Lake Quinault. A series of ultra-rainy storms forced her to get creative with the "Doppler on Wheels".

"To prevent it from becoming the Doppler on WATER, we had to add more wood blocks underneath to elevate the hydraulic feet," Gilliland said.

The homemade piles allowed for the Doppler to remain in the same spot, but was it secure?

"It's stable! But you can feel the logs bumping into it when the lake is high!" she said.

Alycia was deployed on the OLYMPEX campaign for nearly 4 months, and her 'working quarters' atop the DOW truck were tight and cramped, damp and chilly.

"To be out in the weather and actually experience it is so much more gratifying than to just read about it," Gilliland said. "I'd take this any day over being stuck in an office."

Life on a weather field campaign doesn't always involve being out in the elements. At the end of the day, you get to head back indoors and relax in the cozy cottage. Graduate student Joe Zagrodnik, one of the most outdoorsy in an already adventurous group, was tasked with bringing a lot of the equipment into the higher elevations of the Olympic Mountains. He initially did so with the help of mules, and still checks on the instrument sites throughout the campaign. Doing so often requires long backpacking trips, and spending the night in the woods. But he never goes alone.

"I always go with someone from the park service, he's kind of my Sherpa!" he said.

The extra stormy winter has made traversing the tough terrain even trickier.

"You have to take some re-routes, climb over things, we have a handsaw, the weather keeps throwing more obstacles at us," Zagrodnik said.

Thankfully the lake cottage provides a warm respite from the wind and rain.

"It's really nice here, it's like a vacation home -- you're out being wet all day, but at least you can come back and be comfortable," he said.

Back at the University of Washington, Professor Robert Houze and his colleagues now have the task of combing through the data from OLYMPEX, building on years of research from the field campaigns that have come before.

And when the next field campaign does come along, there won't be any problem finding researchers to commit to months in the elements, wind, rain or snow.

"We're scientists -- we're not your normal breed!" Gilliland said.

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