Drones and satellites are the future of hurricane forecasting

Image: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Killer Hurricane Forecasting App? It could be lightweight drones that explore some of the most violent parts of a hurricane and send back real-time data – or new satellite technology that gives forecasters a better view of storms from above.

Why it matters: Inconsistent forecasts and delayed evacuations for Hurricane Ian may have contributed to deaths in Florida — and spurred searches for ways to do better.

  • Better forecasts are becoming increasingly important as climate change leads to more intense and wetter hurricanes that are rapidly intensifying — as Ian did just before his devastating landfall.

Where it says: Today’s monitoring systems are good at predicting a storm’s path, but have difficulty anticipating changes in intensity.

  • To improve predictions, particularly about intensity, scientists need more information about the relatively small core of hurricanes.
  • At the moment these are mainly sampled by human flown Hurricane Hunter aircraft.

What’s happening: Recently, unmanned drones in the air and at sea have been transmitting live data and video from inside these violent storms, including areas off-limits to hurricane hunters.

  • The drones will complement advanced satellites (including a planned commercial network) and a new hurricane forecasting model that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans to adopt next year.

Driving the news: After a particularly hard ride into Hurricane Ian, NOAA scientists deployed a 27-pound drone called the Altius into the storm’s eye and eyewall, where it spent two hours “obtaining critical readings to understand these complex storm systems.” ‘ says the agency.

  • The 8-foot drone was dropped by “Kermit,” one of NOAA’s three Hurricane Hunter aircraft.
  • It was able to communicate from an impressive 100 miles away, sidestepping Kermit’s human pilots.
  • Last year, NOAA first used “saildrones” — surface vessels that troll the ocean — to assess storm intensity.

A Saildrone that crashed into Hurricane Sam last year was “the first time we’ve ever had real-time video from the eye of the hurricane,” said Matt Womble, director of ocean data at Saildrone, a NOAA contractor based in Alameda, California.

  • The second time was last month when a 23-foot Saildrone braved 50-foot waves and 100-mile winds in Hurricane Fiona, a Category 4 storm.
  • The goal of these encounters is to gather data at the air-sea interface to learn more about how a storm rips heat and moisture from the ocean.
  • “The heat and momentum fluxes are how the ocean and atmosphere talk to each other,” said Johna Rudzin, assistant professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at Mississippi State University.
A saildrone on the ocean.
A Saildrone deployed by NOAA near St. Petersburg, Florida this year. Photo courtesy of NOAA and Saildrone

NOAA tested drones for years, but the latest generation is more sophisticated, offering real-time views of a hurricane’s changing path and intensity.

  • They are to be used in conjunction with NOAA’s Hurricane Hunter research aircraft.
  • “They’re so new,” Frank Marks, director of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division, said of the drones. “We didn’t really take advantage of them other than seeing things we’ve never seen before.”
  • Going forward, the “kind of technology combo we’re looking for is the manned aircraft that flies the safer part of the storm a little higher,” while drones are catching the eye.

  • Rudzin said the drone platforms are still being evaluated to determine the reliability of their data.

The big picture: Specifically for storm intensity forecasts, NOAA has developed a new system called HAFS — the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System — and hopes to implement it next spring.

  • HAFS will “provide a seven-day operational analysis and forecast” and allow scientists to “see multiple storms simultaneously to understand how they interact,” NOAA says.
  • Marks says he was “blown away” by the performance of HAFS during the real-time experiments on Hurricanes Ian and Fiona: “It predicted the eyewall replacement cycles; it predicted rapid intensification,” he said.

In the meantime: Boston-based weather and climate intelligence company Tomorrow.io is building a constellation of 12 satellite-mounted radars to scan developing tropical storms and hurricanes hour by hour.

  • Currently, NASA operates a space-based radar satellite known as the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, which is designed to look inside tropical cyclones — but it only passes through a hurricane about every three days, said Rei Goffer, Tomorrow’s co-founder and chief strategy officer ok
  • These scans are like storm X-rays. Tomorrow.io’s Natasha McGrady, who like Goffer is a former fighter pilot, says the new satellites are designed to look inside a storm’s internal structure. The resulting data can significantly improve computer model simulations, she said.

The bottom line: Not only can these new technologies emit data that will improve forecast models, the drones can also stream video that will let the public know the ferocity of the storm — and potentially prompt people to evacuate.

About Mike Crayton

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