NASA and other weather researchers have learned "intriguing " new information about upper-level winds that drive hurricanes, and the devastating impact of the storms as they collide with mountains.
The research from a seven-week study last summer called the Third Convection and Moisture Experiment (CAMEX-3) that involved NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and several universities in a concentrated effort to gauge the strength of Atlantic hurricane winds and rainfall.
"The wind patterns flowing into and out of the hurricanes at the upper altitudes were much more complicated than had been anticipated," said the lead mission scientist, Robbie Hood of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "At times, strong wind gusts were recorded at positions farther from the eyewall or with magnitudes greater than expected."
Researchers flew aboard NASA's specially equipped DC-8 jetliner into hurricanes Bonnie, Danielle, Earl and Georges. An instrument-laden ER-2 high-altitude aircraft was flown above the hurricanes to collect first-of-its-kind data. The information is expected to assist weather forecasters to better predict storm strength and direction -- saving lives and reducing evacuation zones along coastal areas.
"The multi-aircraft datasets obtained by NASA aircraft in these hurricanes are unprecedented in their comprehensiveness," said Dr. Ed Zipser, a weather expert from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. "They will provide researchers with the raw material to understand the storms and their environment, and lead to improved track and intensity forecasts in the future."
"The amazing thing about this data from Georges is that the rain was enhanced significantly by the mountains in the interior of the Dominican Republic," said NASA researcher Dr. Gerald Heymsfield from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "We got a glimpse of the storm's impact with the mountainous island and the subsequent rain which eventually caused significant loss of life."
Heymsfield's images from a Doppler radar on the high-altitude aircraft show Hurricane Georges slamming into 9,000 foot mountains -- producing what appeared to be huge thunderstorms over the mountains.
"Understanding this very complicated interaction between Hurricane Georges and the mountains will keep us busy for a while," said Heymsfield.
The two NASA aircraft were flown a combined total of 132 hours to sample various aspects of the hurricane environment. Information from three storms was captured while they made landfall. The hurricane team also utilized ground-based instruments on Andros Island, Bahamas. The instruments monitored the daily tropical environment before and after each storm.
"Since each hurricane has its own personality with varying characteristics, having information describing four different storms represents a tremendous opportunity to improve our understanding of how hurricanes develop, change and move," said Hood.
"Although these opportunities do not provide immediate comfort to those who directly experienced this season's devastating storms, the wealth of information collected by all the agencies will lead to better hurricane forecast capabilities in the future," she added.
"The real success of CAMEX-3 was the breadth of hurricane information collected," said Dr. Ramesh Kakar of NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., the agency program manager for atmospheric dynamics and remote sensing. "The combination of scientists from eight NASA Centers, and the multi-agency, multi-university teamwork of CAMEX-3 was a tremendous example for the nation."
Kakar said a key to the success of CAMEX was assistance to NASA from numerous universities, the pilots and crews from Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., and the project management staff from the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. "We are very grateful for the advice and coordination efforts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the support from the U.S. Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. Help from the Federal Aviation Administration allowed the CAMEX-3 investigators to capitalize on key research opportunities when they arose," he added.
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