for National Geographic News
Beginning today pilots will have more reliable information about the threat of dangerous icing conditions as they fly across the continental U.S.
The information could save the airline industry more than $20 million a year in aircraft damage and fuel by guiding pilots away from areas in the atmosphere where icing can take place, according the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.
The new data may also save uncounted lives. A study by the National Transportation Safety Board estimates that 819 people died from icing-related accidents between 1982 and 2000.
The new technology is part of an upgrade to a system called the Current Icing Product (CIP), which is available to weather forecasters, air traffic controllers, and, for the first time, pilots.
The project combines surface observations, weather models, satellite and radar data, and pilot reports to create maps and plots of icing conditions that are posted online.
"Pilots can now look at updates during flight," said Marcia Politovich, an in-flight icing researcher at NCAR.
The maps and plots are updated hourly and can be selected for altitudes up to 29,000 feet (8,840 meters), according to the research center. The reports can be streamed directly into the cockpit.
Prior to the upgrade the information was available only to trained meteorologists who could interpret the complicated weather data compiled by CIP, Politovich explained. The information was then relayed to air traffic controllers and pilots.
The update "puts pilots in more true command of the flight path," she said.
The Danger of Icing
Politovich said that contrary to conventional wisdom, water does not always freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).
When it's in the form of tiny drops in clouds, water can stay liquid all the way down to minus 40 degrees, which is the same temperature in Fahrenheit and Celsius.
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