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How Will Underwater, Air Drones Enhance Hurricane Forecasts?

In early September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, launched underwater drones into the Atlantic Ocean to study various facets of the ocean's environment, especially those surrounding hurricanes.

Alongside NASA's airborne drones, sent into flight in August, researchers hope to gather data that could improve future hurricane forecasts.

"There are many factors in understanding hurricane tracks and intensity," Director of the United States Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS, Zdenka Willis said. "We are all trying to work together to make better forecasts for hurricane intensity."

On Sept. 9, 2013, the first gliders of the fleet were sent into the ocean. Launches will continue through mid-October up and down the East Coast from Nova Scotia to Georgia. By the end of October, the Atlantic will host eight to 12 gliders which will remain on missions through early November.

A glider, similar to NASA's Global Hawk aircrafts, are unmanned. These robotic vehicles travel underwater to monitor ocean temperatures, aquatic migration patterns and to model the ocean column using three-dimension imagery, among other things.

"These tools will provide observations over the continental shelf and slope and allow us to see what happens to the ocean before, during and after passage of a storm," Assistant Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Robert Todd said.

Without engines, these torpedo-like gliders are instead dependent upon buoyancy mechanisms for propulsion. Due to their lack of engines, they can remain underwater on missions for long spans of time and can travel thousands of miles.

"Their use of potential energy instead of battery power gives them the persistence to endure long missions because they don't burn a lot of energy," Associate Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Lou Laurent said. Laurent utilizes gliders in a variety of other U.S. oceanographic initiatives.

The current fleet of gliders are on three different types of missions. The first is to provide data sets of the ocean column in real time, in order to provide scientists more accurate models of the air and ocean interfaces.

Some gliders contain acoustic receivers that listen for tags inserted in sharks and other types of marine life to provide information on the environment in which specific species live in and to track migration patterns.

The remaining gliders investigate the mid-Atlantic cold pool, a cold water mass found on the Mid-Atlantic continental shelf, which scientists believe is one piece of the puzzle to determining the forecast and track of hurricanes.

With these gliders in place along the East Coast and NASA's global hawk aircraft on-call during peak hurricane season, scientists can see above and below hurricanes without putting human lives in danger. When a hurricane is headed towards the East coast, these vehicles can be called on-demand for information regarding the approaching system.

While the utilization of these vehicles to better forecast hurricane intensity is still in early stages, according to Willis, previous uses of gliders in storms have yielded promising results.

Two years ago during Hurricane Irene, gliders out in the ocean not only survived the storm, but also gathered information regarding the ocean's conditions before, during and after the storm.

Scientists at Rutgers University studied these data sets and realized that water temperatures during Irene were actually cooler than the models predicted them to be. Thus, the intensity of the storm could have been forecast better because warm water temperatures fuel hurricanes, not cool temperatures.

Again, one year later, gliders observed that ocean temperatures with Superstorm Sandy matched the patterns in the forecast models. As a result, the scientific community could verify that conditions would be as predicted.

This year, researchers have high hopes for the combination of gliders and global hawks.

"We want to test coordinated glider deployment with enough gliders to influence the forecast," Willis said. "We will be able to see what the atmosphere is doing, what the ocean is doing and how that can provide data to feed together into the models to predict hurricane intensity."

With the potential to influence hurricane predictions for the long-term, the IOOS program is funded and built upon both federal and non-federal partnerships including the National Weather Service, the Office of Naval Research, the Ocean Tracking Network in Canada, as well as the three regional Associations for Coastal Ocean Observing, including the Northeast, Southeast and mid-Atlantic. The main coordinator for the missions is the University of Rutgers along with in-kind support from other universities, including the University of Delaware and the University of Maine.