Flying Into the Eye of a Hurricane

"It basically goes down on a parachute at a steady rate," Parrish explained. "It measures temperature, pressure humidity and GPS-derived winds from the instrument. Goes down hits the water, sinks -- it's gone, but during that process it gives a vertical profile of wherever we drop it."

As the drop sonde parachutes its way through the searing winds of the hurricane, it transmits data back to the hurricane hunter two times per second. The plane sends that and radar data to a satellite, which instantly sends it to an Earth station in Camp Springs, Md., where it is distributed around the world for analysis.

Team of Scientists on Call

The National Hurricane Center in Miami is one of the places that constantly monitors the hurricane hunter data. Chris Landsea is head of weather science at the hurricane center. He shows us a computer screen that allows him to see the data the hurricane hunters are collecting high in the sky hundreds of miles away.

"This comes in a few seconds after it is collected," Landsea said. "Here it is collected and analyzed and is provided to the hurricane specialist so they can see where the storm is, how strong it is and the size of the storm."

Every three hours as a hurricane approaches land, forecasters at the hurricane center gather to pool their assessments and issue an update to the public.

More than two dozen different forecasts models are run on super-computers here in the United States and around the world.

Forecasters learn to trust some computerized models more than others, but ultimately they find a consensus of the best models is usually the best predictor.

Eye of Hurricane: 30-Mile-Wide Oasis

Back aboard the hurricane hunter, the pilots are steering the plane into the eye. Another drop sonde is released into the clouds below.

From the cockpit, we get a front-row view of something only a handful of people have ever seen up close: the hurricane's eye wall. The plane flies straight through it. In this case the eye is a 30-mile-wide oasis of a calm with blue sky above and roiling sea below, surrounded by storm clouds on all sides.

Aboard the plane the data pours in. And soon there will be more. This summer the federal government allocated $17 million to a new Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Project. The goal is to have an accurate seven-day hurricane track forecast within 10 years and more than a 50 percent improvement in forecasts that can track a hurricane's intensity.

More than six hours after it left Tampa, NOAA 43 returns. Before it has even landed its data have been analyzed and updated forecasts have already been issued to an anxious public.

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