These Scientists Intentionally Fly Into Hurricanes

NOAA’s WP-3D Orion (top) and Gulfstream IV-SP (bottom)
NOAA’s WP-3D Orion (top) and Gulfstream IV-SP (bottom)
NOAA

Hurricanes are a terrifying display of nature's power. Even last century, a perfectly sunny day could turn into unimaginable horror without any warning at all, as storms leveled entire towns and upended thousands of lives. We've come a long way since those dark days, and now we can watch hurricanes churn over the ocean in weather broadcasts in time to get out of the way. One of the best ways we can follow these storms is thanks to the men and women who make up the so-called (yes, actually) Hurricane Hunters.

The Hurricane Hunters are scientists working for both NOAA and the United States Air Force who fly airplanes into the worst parts of a hurricane to tell us first-hand what the storm is doing. Bad-ass scientists began regularly flying into storms (on purpose) after World War II, and today the practice is a standard part of hurricane forecasting in the United States. If satellite and radar imagery of a storm are like doctors taking an x-ray of your body, the work of the Hurricane Hunters is like drawing blood, sampling the inside of the storm to get a good idea of what it's doing at the moment.

NOAA's two famous Hurricane Hunter aircraft are Lockheed WP-3D Orions—nicknamed "Miss Piggy" and "Kermit"—that are equipped with special sensors and devices that help the meteorologists look at the storm and understand what makes it tick. The U.S. Air Force's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron also operates a fleet of 10 WC-130J Hercules aircraft that utilize similar equipment when they fly out into storms.

radar image of Hurricane Matthew, September 2016
A radar image of Hurricane Matthew over the southern Caribbean Sea on September 30, 2016, taken from a NOAA WP-3D Orion.
NOAA-AOC/Google Earth

All of the aircraft are equipped with Doppler weather radar that helps both the airplane crew and meteorologists back on dry ground understand the internal structure of a storm. This radar imagery is useful for seeing the structure of the eyewall—important for determining its strength and longevity—as well as information about rain bands and any intrusions of dry air that could affect the storm's future.

The most important feature of all Hurricane Hunter aircraft is dropsondes, or small tubes filled with weather sensors that are dropped from the aircraft into the storm. Dropsondes work on the same principle as weather balloons, but the sensors go in the opposite direction—up to down. These sensor packages measure conditions like temperature, dew point (moisture), and air pressure, while GPS sensors help determine wind speed and direction. This information is relayed back to the crew in real-time. Dropsondes help meteorologists measure the lowest surface air pressure within the eye of a storm as well as the highest wind speeds in the storm.

One of the most innovative tools the Hurricane Hunters use is a piece of technological wizardry known as a Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer, or SFMR. The SFMR is a device attached to the wing of the aircraft that monitors the amount of microwave radiation being reflected beneath the plane by factors like waves, sea foam, and rainfall rates. Meteorologists are able to use data collected by the SFMR to accurately estimate the wind speed beneath the aircraft. In fact, the National Hurricane Center was able to use data collected by an SFMR on one of the Air Force's planes to determine that Hurricane Patricia's peak winds reached a record-breaking 215 mph [PDF] off the western coast of Mexico in October 2015, which is the highest wind speed ever recorded in a tropical cyclone anywhere in the world.

NOAA also uses a Gulfstream IV-SP aircraft to survey the environments around and ahead of tropical cyclones as they draw closer to land. These aircraft fly at high altitudes and release dropsondes to measure both moisture and wind speed and direction to help meteorologists better understand the environment into which the storm is heading. This data, along with more frequent weather balloon releases on land, can be ingested into weather models to help forecasters create more accurate predictions for the eventual track a tropical storm or hurricane will take—and help keep you safe.

Storm Leaves Homes Along Lake Erie Covered in Up To Three Feet of Ice

Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
John Normile/Getty Images

This past weekend, lakeside residents of Hamburg, New York, awoke to find their neighborhood transformed into a full-scale replica of Frozen’s ice-covered kingdom, Arendelle.

According to CNN, gale force winds produced giant waves that sprayed the houses along Lake Erie with sheets of water for two days straight, covering them in layers of ice up to three feet thick.

“It looks fake, it looks surreal,” Hamburg resident Ed Mis told CNN. “It’s dark on the inside of my house. It can be a little eerie, a little frightening.”

While the homeowners are anxious for the ice to melt, they’re also concerned about what could happen when it does.

“We’re worried about the integrity, of structure failure when it starts to melt, because of the weight on the roof,” Mis said.

He added that this is the worst ice coating he’s seen since he moved to the area eight years ago—but it’s not because they’ve had a particularly harsh winter. In fact, just the opposite is true. According to The Detroit News, warm winter temperatures have caused ice cover on the Great Lakes to drop from 67 percent in 2019 to less than 20 percent this year.

“Lake Erie typically has significant ice cover by this time of the year, and that protects the shoreline from these battering storms,” The Weather Channel’s winter weather expert Tom Niziol explained in a video.

The phenomenon has created another unforeseen issue for Hamburg’s coast, too: Tourism. The local police department posted a message on Facebook on Sunday, March 1, asking people to keep off both the “extremely unsafe and unstable” ice and people's private property.

[h/t CNN]

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

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