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.
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.