NOAA spends summer researching hurricane forecasts

By Emily Aasand | August 26, 2014

This summer, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists and partners are launching multiple unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that will collect weather information both above ground and in the water to help improve hurricane forecasts.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Congress passed and the President signed the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, which provides $60 billion in funding for disaster relief. The NOAA received $309.7 million to provide technical assistance to states with coastal and fishery impacts from Sandy. NOAA’s research money will also be used to help better predict hurricanes to aid future preparation, response and recovery from future events.

Researchers are sending dropsondes—instruments that are dropped into storms to measure weather data— and unmanned aircraft into places where it would be unsafe, to gather hurricane and weather data.

This fall, NOAA researchers are teaming up with NASA to launch two 115-foot wingspan Global Hawks. The aircraft will go on several data-collecting missions during the course of the five weeks of the heightened Atlantic hurricane season.

“With the Global Hawk we can fly farther out over the ocean and get to storms that manned aircraft cannot reach. We can look at storms when they first come off the coast of Africa,” said Robbie Hood, director of NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems program. “Getting this data early in a storm’s life cycle is critical to understanding and predicting its ultimate evolution. Our goal is to begin using unmanned systems to improve weather operations and the Sandy funding is helping us move toward this goal.”   

NOAA scientists at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) are using a special, smaller aircraft, called Coyotes, to gather data at the lowest parts of a tropical storm just above the ocean surface.

The researchers are also taking to the ocean to gather data on how the ocean modifies severe weather. The underwater gliders gather continuous data as the venture to depths of more than 3,300 feet. According to reports, each glider is equipped to take precise measurements of ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, and currents—information that can give scientists data on the evolution of the temperature and ocean current velocity patterns across the upper layer of the ocean, which can fuel hurricanes.

AOML is also teaming up with researchers at the Northern Gulf Institute and will be using an unmanned system called a Wave Glider in the Gulf of Mexico to measure air and water temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and barometric pressure.

“Often forecasters do not have access to real-time hurricane environmental data since much of it can only be gathered by entering directly into extremely dangerous parts of a storm,” said Alan Leonardi, AOML’s deputy director. “New technologies like that Wave Glider are giving us real-time ground truth while also safely providing a closer look at the dynamics of air-sea interactions in storm environment.”