May 1, 2006 During hurricane season, scientists fly aboard NOAA aircraft to pinpoint the precise path of the eye of a storm, and to take data to send back to the National Hurricane Center. The planes are now fitted with devices that are lowered to measure wind speed, temperature, and humidity right at the ocean's surface.
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ORLANDO, Fla.--Warnings say stay away, but why are airplanes flying toward hurricanes? Preparations are underway for the 2006 hurricane season. Researchers say we're in the middle of a rough cycle, meaning we could be in store for more strong storms this season.
As the wind and rain hit, most people are high-tailing it away from the hurricane. Most ... But not all!
"It's like an E-Ticket ride at Disney World. I mean, you are just all over the sky," aircraft operator Jim McFadden tells DBIS. "Sometimes you start to do a lot of thinking about your life, because it might come to an end."
McFadden flies straight into these massive storms. This Chief of Programs & Projects Staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla., says, "It's like being inside of a huge football stadium, because you have the entire wall cloud around you, spreading out toward the top, beautiful blue sky."
But getting to the eye is a rough ride.
"We had severe turbulence," McFadden says. "Everything was rearranged on the airplane. I mean, you know, locked draws were ripped out."
Chris Landsea Science and Operations Officer at NOAA's National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., says it's only when you're in the rain bands and in the eye wall that it gets real turbulent.
"But if you get into the eye of the hurricane and it's a strong hurricane, then visually it's amazing," Landsea says. "Then you look down, and you may have 30-foot waves, 50-foot waves hitting each other."
NOAA has two large planes that work with the United States Air Force to help the Hurricane Center gather information about the hurricanes. Meteorologists and atmospheric scientists like McFadden and Landsea fly into each and every hurricane to make sure they know exactly what will happen to our coast.
"People wouldn't know what's going on with the storm unless we were," McFadden says. "We're in there finding where the center of the storm is, what the lowest pressure is, estimating surface pressure in the center of the storm, and transmitting all that information back."
A new device, dropwindsondes are lowered from the plane and can measure air temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed at the ocean's surface. NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center supplies the information to the National Hurricane Center, which uses the information gathered during the flights to track the storm and issue warnings.
BACKGROUND: NOAA has a new weather plane to help scientists study weather patterns to learn more about where and when hurricanes or tornadoes are ready to strike. These aircraft carry remote sensors that use microwaves to probe the inside of an eye of a hurricane, measuring changes in vertical air currents, electrical activity, and the amount of ice contained in the highest thunderstorm clouds. These are all indicators of a hurricane's intensity and potential for destruction.
ABOUT HURRICANES: A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone, a low-pressure system that usually forms in the tropics and has winds that circulate counterclockwise near the earth's surface. Storms are considered hurricanes when their wind speeds surpass 74 MPH. Every hurricane arises from the combination of warm water and moist warm air. Tropical thunderstorms drift out over warm ocean waters and encounter winds coming in from near the equator. Warm, moist air from the ocean surface rises rapidly, encounters cooler air, and condensed into water vapor to form storm clouds, releasing heat in the process. This heat causes the condensation process to continue, so that more and more warm moist air is drawn into the developing storm, creating a wind pattern that spirals around the relatively calm center, or eye, of the storm, much like water swirling down a drain. The winds keep circling and accelerating to form a classic cyclone pattern.
RATING HURRICANES: Hurricanes are categorized according to the strength of their winds according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale. They are rated from lowest wind speeds (Category 1) to highest (Category 5). But even lower category storms can cause a great deal of damage, mostly from storm surges – when water is pushed towards the show by strong winds and combines with normal tides to create hurricane storm tides – and the resulting flooding. The worst devastation from hurricane Katrina, for example, occurred when flooding caused the New Orleans levees to fail.
EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE: If it seems like hurricanes are becoming more frequent and severe, that's because they are, thanks to rising air and water temperatures around the world, which make it easier for hurricanes to form. Some scientists attribute this to global warming and human activity, such as deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Others think that it is due to natural changes deep in the Atlantic, part of a natural cycle that shifts every 40-60 years.
The American Meteorological Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.