Studying hurricanes at sea to save lives ashore » Yale Climate Communications

(Editor’s note: Glider has collected live footage from inside Hurricane Fiona as a Category 4 Hurricane as it threatens Atlantic Canada.)

Greg Fultz, a NOAA oceanographer, knew it was going to be a long night last fall when he saw the path of a toxic hurricane. Glued to data from the National Hurricane Center, Fultz, who works at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Miami, examined storm tracking and intensity and performed an analysis of satellite imagery and data.

He needed to estimate the hurricane’s path over the next 12-24 hours so he could put his tools down. He wasn’t trying to pull his expensive gear out of the hurricane’s path. In fact, he was doing the opposite. He wanted to put an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) called a drone in the storm’s path. A direct hit by a Tier 4 ferocious storm was exactly what he was looking for.

While observing the storm closely, Foltz sent messages to Saildrone’s Mission Control when he wanted to change course. For example, if it thinks the storm will veer slightly to the west, the team will send a new path point to adjust.

“It was constantly adjusting the site back and forth as we wanted the glider to weather the strongest part of the storm,” Fultz says. “I was guiding in real time where to take the Saildrone to get it in the best place to get through the strongest part of the hurricane, and that was exciting. I hadn’t really slept the whole night before because I was trying to put it in the right position.”

Equipped with a “hurricane wing,” the Saildrone can be controlled remotely, with scientists adjusting the sail from afar in order to steer the craft. Hurricane Saildrones is different from some of the company’s other products, which are used for projects such as ocean mapping, ocean data collection, marine domain awareness,

says Matt Wamble, director of ocean data programs for Saildrone, Inc.

As Hurricane Sam’s strong Category 4 winds and monster waves battered the USV, the team waited and watched. Live data and video footage streamed, allowing them to peek into the storm’s fury. After the weather calmed, they were able to direct him to Bermuda to get him back, and he was mostly unharmed.

Hurricane Saildrone Project Expansion In Hurricane Season

After last year’s successful mission, NOAA and Saildrone are expanding the project this year by adding two additional gliders, for a total of seven. Hurricane season runs from June to November, and this year two drones are positioned in the Gulf of Mexico and five more in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Researchers post them to locations where they believe there is a good chance the storm will develop. Last year, Saildrones collected data on a toxic hurricane, as well as four tropical storms, as well as a few tropical depressions and weaker storms.

Scientists focus on rapid intensification of hurricanes…

One of the most important things scientists study is hurricane intensification. When hurricanes intensify quickly, people can become unprepared and unable to evacuate or prepare appropriately, resulting in deaths and a massive amount of destruction.

By sending real-time data to hurricane forecasters, they hope they will be able to help improve the accuracy of real-time forecasts, as well as improve hurricane models and forecasts.

Simple map showing a rough outline of the areas of operation during the 2022 Atlantic Hurricane mission. One glider will be assigned to each operational area.

Climate change is fueling hurricanes and creating the potential for the storm to become more severe. “The most powerful effect of climate change on hurricanes, I would say, is that it increases the kind of ‘speed limit’ you can say,” Fultz says. “The maximum wind speed of a hurricane, the maximum potential intensity a hurricane can reach, is [the effect] Climate change is happening.” He points out that this does not mean that every hurricane will get stronger, but rather that it raises the ceiling of maximum hurricane intensity under the right conditions.

Saildrones collects data such as air and water temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure, salinity, wave height and duration, as well as recording and video transmission. Researchers use the collected data to learn more about a range of topics, including energy exchange, momentum, and condensation.

Going to sleep with cat 1, but waking up with cat 4

Saildrones is one of the set of tools used to study powerful ocean storms using “co-location measurements”. These tools collect data from different locations to provide researchers with a set of measurements to help study hurricanes. Underwater gliders can dive far from the ocean’s surface, tracking things like salinity and temperature, and ocean buoys and drifts collect data. Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) collect measurements several hundred feet above sea level, and projectors are deployed from Hurricane Hunter aircraft.

Hugh Willoughby, a tropical meteorologist and professor at Florida International University, has flown hundreds of research flights into hurricanes through his previous work in the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division. He hopes that collecting the Saildrone data will help save lives.

“This provides a new way of looking at an old problem where we know enough to realize where we’re misunderstanding it, and that will lead to improved models, which will lead to improved expectations that will save people’s lives and property,” he says.

Fultz and colleagues are currently analyzing data collected from last season, preparing research papers to share their findings, while also collecting this year’s data. He says the team also hopes the data can be used in real-world applications that could save lives.

Saildrone’s Womble points out “the promise or hope that the data we collect from Saildrones will be able to help improve forecasts of hurricane intensification.” He cites a comment he heard at the hurricane mission launch event, in which a scientist said that people might go to sleep expecting a Category 1 storm but wake up the next morning to find a Cat 4 slamming into them.

“This is a scary scenario for people [who] They can sleep, and all of a sudden, they have a completely different decision matrix with very little time to make decisions themselves,” Womble says. “The fact that Saildrones might be able to help improve those expectations and make those decisions easier for people, or at least give people better information. To make decisions, it’s something we’re excited about.”

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