Today is June 1, which means the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season has officially begun. And to get a better sense of how bad these coming six months could get, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is sending out drones to hunt hurricanes.
What we already know is there is a 60% chance that 2021 will witness an above-normal hurricane season. A likely range of 13 to 20 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which six to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including three to five major hurricanes (category 3, 4, or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher) is expected.
But the life-saving early warnings and forecasts that NOAA provides allow communities to prepare for the dangers that hurricanes can bring and helps to minimize the economic impacts of storms. And playing an important role in improving forecasting and delivering critical early warnings this season are hurricane hunting drones.
Traditionally, NOAA has been using small, one-pound GPS weather devices called dropsondes to collect hurricane data. As manned Hurricane Hunter airplanes drop these cylindrical instruments tethered to parachutes through the eyewall of hurricanes, they measure pressure, humidity, temperature, as well as the wind direction and speed structure of the storm while freefalling.
But these dropsondes don’t offer the complete picture.
Hurricane forecasting with research drones
NOAA’s specially-developed research drones, meanwhile, can fly up to four hours and distances up to 265 miles from their point of launch, improving NOAA’s understanding of the boundary layer and advancing forecast models.
According to Joseph Cione, a lead meteorologist at NOAA:
Dropsondes give us ‘snapshots’ of weather conditions, while the continuous flow of data collected by uncrewed aircraft provide something closer to a movie. Deploying the uncrewed aircraft from NOAA Hurricane Hunters will ultimately help us better detect changes in hurricane intensity and overall structure.
While these research drones fly into the lower part of hurricanes to improve forecasting, a different kind of drone will help NOAA track the various parts of the life cycle of tropical storms in the ocean.
Drones in the air and drones under water
NOAA’s underwater drones, called gliders, are equipped with sensors to measure salt content, temperature, and other physical, chemical, and environmental parameters as they move through the ocean down to a half-mile below the surface.
These battery-powered drones can provide high-volume, high-resolution, real-time data in areas where hurricanes frequently travel and intensify or weaken – especially in regions where they may be a scarcity of ocean observations.
During the 2020 hurricane season, these gliders collected more than 13,200 data points of temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen to help NOAA provide better forecasts for Hurricane Isaias, Tropical Storm Josephine, and Hurricane Laura. Cione explains:
Ultimately, these new observations help emergency managers make informed decisions on evacuations before tropical cyclones make landfall.
As Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator, points out:
Although NOAA scientists don’t expect this season to be as busy as last year, it only takes one storm to devastate a community.
So, it is reassuring that the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center have armed themselves with emerging observation techniques like drones to deliver the life-saving forecasts that we all depend on during this, and every, hurricane season.
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