NASA Drones May Improve Hurricane Forecasts

NASA drones will fly this August to investigate hurricane formation processes and potentially improve hurricane forecasts in the long-term.

The second of three flights in NASA's five-year HS3 mission will occur between Aug. 20 and Sept. 23, 2013. The 2013 H3 flights will bring with them new technology, and for the first time will fly with a second NASA Global Hawk aircraft.

"One of the main features of these unmanned systems is their ability to remain airborne for such a long period of time, as long as 24 hours or even a bit longer," said Dr. Robert Rogers, meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "As a result, Global Hawks can fly for considerable distances, distances much farther than manned aircraft can reach."

This increase in duration will allow for a continuous stream of data, focusing on the "inner region of the storms to hopefully uncover information about hurricane formation and intensity changes," according to a NASA press release.

Additionally, these hawks will be able to climb to higher altitudes and get above the storms. This will allow the collection of data from not only from the middle and bottom of the storm but most importantly from the top level of the storm.

The second aircraft, added to the flight this year, will look at the precipitation in the core of the storms. Those observations along with onboard Doppler radar, may be able to help improve predictions. An initial test from a 2010 case showed significant improvement said Scott Braun, research meteorologist and principal investigator for HS3.

"Our goal is to collect storm measurements and environment to understand storm processes better," Braun explained.

"The combination of aircraft and new technology allows the collection of data sets that we haven't been able to get before," said Braun. In theory, improving initial data put into models would improve model forecasts of tropical systems.

The missions are funded by NASA's Earth Venture Program which was founded in 2010. Other contributions and partners include the Naval Research Lab, the Goddard and Marshall Space Flight Centers, NOAA and various universities such as the University of Wisconsin and the University of Utah.

During the first of the three flights that occurred last year, the H3's Global Hawk aircraft gathered data about the dust around the Tropical Storm Nadine. Preliminary data gathered by these missions could one day improve hurricane prediction and forecasting.

Tropical Storm Nadine is best known for strengthening three different times from a tropical storm to a hurricane during its lifetime, eventually hitting the Azores Islands in the Northern Atlantic Ocean.

The dust that the 2012 mission investigated is important to the study of the birth and lifespan of tropical storms.

"African Saharan dust suppresses tropical development," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bob Smerbeck. "It's hard to produce anything in African dust."

Every summer, impulses come across the desert with gusty winds from west to east and pick up African dust. In addition, these winds pick up dry air from the desert that choke the systems. The combination of dry air and easterly winds are bad for tropical development, Smerbeck said.

"In August and September dust events weaken so there is better development of tropical waves," said Smerbeck. This decrease in dust events is precisely why hurricane season ramps up in August and September.

While the 2013 flights will be research flights and "much of the data will not go to the National Hurricane Center in real-time for operational use," according to Dr. Daniel J. Cecil with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. "At the very least, data from one of the airplanes will go out in real-time and this could help with diagnosing the current intensity, size and steering flow for NHC forecasters."

It may take time for all the flight's research to be compiled and conducted but, according to Rogers, "This information could one day be used to specify the inner-core structure of hurricanes... with the hope of ultimately improving forecasts of hurricane structure and intensity change."

Collected data from these flights has the potential to make history and lead to improving hurricane predictions in years to come.