NASA’s Global Hawk helps predict El Niño storms on West Coast

By Patrick C. Miller | March 03, 2016

NASA is used its Global Hawk unmanned aerial system (UAS) in February to help improve the accuracy of extreme weather predictions from Pacific storms along the West Coast.

According to Robbie Hood, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) UAS program, the mission demonstrated how the Global Hawk can augment satellites and routinely fly vast areas of the ocean.

"How do you use Global Hawks and actually chase storms?" Hood asked. "That's what we are looking at with these missions."

NOAA, NASA and the National Weather Service partnered on an El Niño field research campaign to get data in the hands of forecasters and into NOAA’s weather models, said Robert Webb, Physical Science Division director of the Office of Ocean and Atmospheric Research for NOAA.

The observation flights were part of an ongoing NOAA mission called Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology (SHOUT). The multi-year mission shows how the use of autonomous vehicles can fill in gaps in weather modeling and as a potential backup when satellite data is unavailable.

The mission is being conducted in collaboration with NOAA's larger El Niño Rapid Response Field campaign. In addition to the Global Hawk, NOAA also used a Gulfstream IV research plane and the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown.

El Niño is a recurring climate phenomenon, characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, which increases the odds for warm and dry winters across the northern United States and cool, wet winters across the South.

Based at NASA Armstrong, the Global Hawk last month flew several 24-hour flights in at 60,000 feet. The aircraft provided detailed meteorological measurements from a region in the Pacific that is known to be the origin point of El Niño storms and particularly critical for interactions linked to West Coast storms and rainfall.

The Global Hawk can help fill a void over the Pacific Ocean that other assets, such as satellites, cannot easily study, especially in the upper atmosphere where clouds can obscure observations, Webb said.

"It gives us a chance to really get ahead of the storm," he added.

Some of that data is collected through the use of tools resembling paper towel tubes called dropsondes. These devices are dropped from the Global Hawk into the weather to gather temperature, moisture and wind speed and direction, Webb said.

Also onboard the Global Hawk is the High Altitude Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Profiler (HIWRAP) instrument, operated and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the High Altitude MMIC Sounding Radiometer (HAMSR) instrument, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The instruments collected remote observations of the area, producing data similar to satellite observations.

"Every place the Global Hawk flies is like a layer cake and we see how it stacks up," Hood said. "The data can be cross referenced and map areas in and around the storm, and we can watch how it develops. We are interested in understanding the data that can improve our ability to predict extreme weather."


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