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Target: Hurricanes

NOAA scientists part of NASA-led mission to study the damaging storms with unmanned aircraft, new instruments

Contacts: John Ewald, 301-734-1123; and Erica Rule, 305-361-4541

As Hurricane Isaac’s floodwaters recede, NASA scientists and colleagues are launching a three-year mission to better understand what makes hurricanes intensify or weaken, and what factors steer the destructive storms, sometimes onto U.S. coasts.


In the NASA-led Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) mission, two unmanned but heavily instrumented aircraft will soar above and around hurricanes and developing storms during September and early October. Researchers from NASA, NOAA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other organizations expect the data collected by the remotely piloted craft will improve scientists’ understanding of hurricane intensity changes. Eventually, that could mean more skillful forecasts of hurricane intensity.

“NOAA’s hurricane track forecasts have gotten better and better in the last few decades,” said Gary Wick, from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. “The agency is determined to continue that progress and extend it to intensity forecasts. This mission will let us understand what kinds of observations of developing storms and their environments may help.”

NOAA’s participation in the HS3 mission is supported by NASA, the NOAA Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Program, which evaluates the feasibility of UAS technology to address NOAA observing needs, the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which is supplying pilots and maintenance personnel for the experiment, and the agency’s Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project (HFIP), which aims to improve track and intensity forecasts 50 percent by 2019.

Wick is part of the team of scientists gathered at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast this fall, charged with maintaining arrays of instruments aboard NASA’s two, 116-foot wingspan Global Hawk aircraft. Pilots on the ground, including three NOAA Corps officers, will direct those aircraft over young storm systems developing in the middle of the Atlantic; mature storms in the Atlantic, Caribbean, or Gulf of Mexico; and in the path of the hurricanes, where conditions can affect storm development and direction.

“These aircraft can fly for more than 24 hours straight, which is just incredible for us,” said Mike Black, a researcher with the Hurricane Research Division of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. “It will let us continuously monitor these storms from their very beginnings as they grow into full-blown hurricanes.”

NASA’s two Global Hawks will carry dozens of instruments into the skies, in this effort to better understand hurricanes. Some data, for example, may give scientists better insight into how Saharan dust storms, blown out to sea from Africa, may influence hurricane formation and intensification.

NASA Hurricane Aircraft

NASA Hurricane Aircraft

NASA's Global Hawk departs for its mission out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Va. Credit: NASA

Black and Wick are both involved in collection and analysis of data from “dropsondes,” lightweight packages of miniaturized instruments launched from aircraft flying as high as 65,000 feet. NCAR engineers in Boulder, Colorado were funded by the NOAA UAS Program and the National Science Foundation to design the mini dropsondes and the system that releases the instruments on demand from the belly of the aircraft during HS3.

A small parachute sits atop the 5-ounce packages, which are about the size and shape of a paper towel tube. Sophisticated sensors inside the tubes relay vital information from inside the storm, including temperature, humidity, pressure, precise location (and therefore wind) – to the ground in real-time.

In Miami, Black will be able to quality control the data and quickly relay it directly to modeling centers, for uploading into forecasting systems. Eventually, researchers will be able to experiment with the data, to see if additional observations of hurricanes and their environments improve forecasts. The scientists suspect it will, because the Global Hawks can soar for so long and so high.

“This should give us a clearer picture of how hurricanes interact with the environment,” Wick said, “which should improve both track and intensity forecasts.” Piloted hurricane hunter aircraft fly into the eye of the storm and gather critical observations such the minimum air pressure and the maximum wind speed, observations known to improve hurricane forecasts. But piloted flights are generally limited to 8 hours, restricting the area and times during which scientists can sample developing storms and their environments.

“These aircraft and instruments will provide a wealth of information, over longer time scales than we have had before,” Black said. “So the observations collected from the Global Hawks during HS3 may advance our overall understanding of tropical meteorology, including hurricanes.”

NOAA's mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit and join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.

On the Web:

NOAA’s Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project (HFIP)
NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program
NASA HS3 mission page
NOAA's Hurricane Hunter aircraft
NOAA's Global Hawk pilot, CDR Phil Hall  
NOAA's Hurricane Research Division blog

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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