July 12, 2000 Real-time information helps predict hurricanes' paths, intensities
AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts hurricane hunter Jim Carswell will be flying into the eyes of hurricanes again this year, using high-tech weather sensors developed at UMass. These sensors help predict the path and intensity of the storms. Scientists expect this hurricane season, which runs from now until Oct. 31, to be "above average," with at least three severe hurricanes. Graduate student Tony Castells is already in Miami, installing the instruments in the aircraft; Carswell will join him in early August, when the bigger storms are expected to begin brewing.
The UMass team is responsible for sending real-time data to the National Hurricane Center. This information is used to establish landfall warnings and intensity reports. Pinpoint forecasts give people in threatened areas time to protect their property and evacuate to safety, according to Carswell. "We do research that has an immediate positive impact on people's safety," said Carswell. "That's a pretty neat experience."
Flying through the wall of a hurricane "feels like riding a spinning carnival ride, mounted on a roller-coaster," said Carswell, an engineer with the University's Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL). Satellite images offer an idea of a storm's location and intensity, Carswell said. But it takes reconnaissance flights to get the more precise information that is critical to forecasting the storm's path. Missions last about 10 hours, and entail anywhere from five to more than 15 passes through a storm's eye, in a cross-shaped pattern, in a P-3 airplane equipped to withstand winds whipping up to 180 miles an hour.
The remote sensors are designed and constructed by researchers at the UMass lab, part of the department of electrical and computer systems engineering. A specially modified radar "looks" at the water surface, as well as the rain, to determine the storm's wind speed and wind direction. Scientists are also interested in determining how much water is in a storm system, since flooding can cause more damage than wind - as Hurricane Floyd demonstrated last year.
This is Carswell's fourth season as a hurricane hunter, and the ninth year UMass has been involved in such reconnaissance missions. He flies along with researchers from the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Aircraft Operations Center.
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