August 9, 2010 in Nation/World

For storm clues, planes head right to the source

Ken Kaye Sun Sentinel
Who’s involved

Air Force Reserve: Whenever a storm threatens land, the hurricane center will dispatch a rugged four-engine WC-130 turboprop to determine the system’s exact location and strength. The planes can capture wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.

NOAA: Three four-engine WP-3 Orion turboprops and a twin-engine Gulfstream G-IV high-altitude jet study the inner workings of storms and the atmosphere around them to better understand how tropical systems intensify, which could help improve intensity forecasts.

NASA: The agency plans to dispatch three jets in and around storms to study why some hurricanes suddenly intensify. The largest of those, a four-engine Douglas DC-8, is able to fly up to 41,000 feet and has been converted into a flying laboratory, allowing scientists to observe the inner workings of storms in real time.

National Center for Atmospheric Research: The nonprofit research center, based in Boulder, Colo., will deploy a twin-engine Gulfstream G-V jet to study why some clusters of thunderstorms become hurricanes while many others don’t.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Should a hurricane threaten this summer, up to seven airplanes are ready to attack it – and no, they won’t be dropping nuclear bombs in hopes of deflating it.

Rather, each plane will have a specific mission; some studying a storm for research purposes and others investigating it to fortify tropical advisories. Their overall goal: help the National Hurricane Center develop the most accurate forecasts.

“The planes will send data back; we’ll provide it to our hurricane specialists and then to the world,” said meteorologist Warren Von Werne, who helps coordinate the flights.

Three government agencies and a research group hope to take advantage of what is predicted to be a busy hurricane season by buzzing as many storms as possible this year. The seven types of planes constitute the largest fleet to investigate hurricanes since the Air Force first sent a single-engine AT-6 Texan into the eye of a storm in 1943.

All the aircraft are loaded with sophisticated weather monitoring instruments. Many also will release “dropsondes,” parachute-equipped devices that hold atmospheric sensors, in and around storms.

The Air Force Reserve WC-130 turboprop “hurricane hunters” make the most critical flights, feeding information on a storm’s strength and structure, necessary for forecasters to issue advisories and tropical warnings.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will deploy a WP-3 Orion turboprop and a Gulfstream G-IV jet to study how storms intensify.

NASA will send three jets, a DC-8, a WB-57 and a Global Hawk, into storms to learn more about how tropical systems evolve and what triggers them to suddenly strengthen.

And the National Center for Atmospheric Research will dispatch a Gulfstream G-V to study how hurricanes form in the first place.

Ideally, scientists would like to monitor the full life cycle of a storm, said Robert Rogers, a research meteorologist for NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division in Miami.

“We try to catch systems before they’re hurricanes, like when they’re tropical depressions or even pre-depression. You have to do that if you want to understand how they evolve,” he said.

The National Hurricane Center coordinates all of the flights and each plane must provide the center with a detailed plan on how it intends to explore a storm. In general, hurricanes must be within 1,500 miles of land before the planes are dispatched.

The Federal Aviation Administration monitors the planes after they take to the air. To ensure no conflicts, each aircraft is assigned to fly in its own “block” of airspace, such as between 15,000 and 17,000 feet, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.

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