Intelligent Machines

Robotic Storm Tracker Gets a Big Test with Earl

The largest-ever storm monitoring mission is now gathering scientific data that was previously impossible to get.

  • by Brittany Sauser
  • September 2, 2010
  • Bearing down: NASA’S Global Hawk flies over the eye of Hurricane Earl. Thus far it has made numerous passes over the eye and will continue to monitor the storm until Thursday evening.

As Hurricane Earl barrels toward the eastern seaboard of the United States, coastal residents don’t know if they should evacuate in case the storm makes landfall. They rely on forecasters analyzing computer models, but those predictions differ. A new hurricane-monitoring mission that’s now underway hopes to reduce this uncertainty by gathering atmospheric and environmental storm data never before obtained.

NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are conducting the largest tropical storm and hurricane monitoring mission to date. The mission involves simultaneously flying up to seven aircraft, each equipped with sophisticated instrumentation, to gather data from the time of a storm’s inception to its dissipation.

“There is a lot about storms that we don’t know–why does a storm rapidly intensify? How do things like aerosols, atmospheric moisture, and ocean currents affect a storm’s development?” says Gerry Heymsfield, a NASA mission scientist. “The new measurements we are making will significantly enhance our understanding and ultimately improve forecast models.”

The collaborative hurricane monitoring project includes three different missions: NASA’s Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes experiment, which will focus on how tropical storms form and develop into hurricanes; NOAA’s Intensity Forecasting Experiment, designed to better understand and predict intensity changes in storms like Hurricane Earl; and NSF’s Pre-Depression Investigation of Cloud Systems in the Tropics project, which will look at the beginning stages of a storm. The missions began in late August and will continue to the end of September. Hurricane Earl, says Heymsfield, will be one of the first storms to produce enough data to yield compelling results.

On Monday, NASA’s DC-8 aircraft and NOAA’s two jet planes flew through Hurricane Earl as it passed through the Caribbean. Although most of the information gathered will take years to analyze, the aircraft do obtain some real-time data using dropsondes, which are balloons dropped into the storm. The dropsondes measure the storm’s temperature, humidity, and pressure. The information provides a profile of the hurricane that can be assimilated into mathematical models for forecasting its track and intensity. Other instrumentation on the planes measure such things as precipitation rate, cloud distribution, winds, water content, and particle profiles.

Michael Black, a research meteorologist in the Hurricane Research Division at NOAA, says the biggest impact of the project should come from NASA’s Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft carrying new scientific instrumentation. Unlike manned aircraft, the Global Hawk can fly for up to 30 hours and at high altitudes; it can also gather more detailed data than a satellite and can be stationed to monitor an area for extended periods. (Technology Review wrote about the robotic plane’s capabilities here.)

“The Global Hawk can sit above the hurricane and peer into it to gather the information we don’t have about the top of the storm,” Black says. At the top of the hurricane, wind flow is reversed, so instead of spiraling in from the center, the winds spiral out. A balance of wind flow between the top and bottom of a storm is what enables it to intensify from a cyclone–a closed area of rapid wind circulation–to a hurricane.

The Global Hawk took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California on Wednesday evening to make its first flight over Hurricane Earl and monitor the storm for 24 hours.

The Global Hawk payload includes two new instruments developed by NASA, one to gather horizontal wind vectors and ocean surface winds, and a second to measure and create a 3-D distribution of temperature, water vapor, and cloud liquid water. (A third new NASA instrument that measures strong ocean surface winds through heavy rain will be onboard the WB-57 aircraft, also being flown by NASA.) These three instruments are more sophisticated and will provide better measurements than anything now used, says Heymsfield.

T.N. Krishnamurti, a professor of meteorology at Florida State University, says the new hurricane monitoring mission is unique and will help researchers build more accurate models of future storms. Having a better handle on the track and intensity of storms can help emergency management groups better prepare. “So many things happen in a hurricane that are complex–a warm core forms, high wind speeds, rain bands, and ocean currents are rampant–and we have lacked observation of all these things together,” says Krishnamurti.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.