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2020 hurricane hunting evolves with new technology in light of COVID-19 safety concerns

By Joe Mario Pedersen, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

ORLANDO, Fla. - When the hurricane hunter aircraft collected data for Hurricane Laura in August, most of the meteorologists analyzing it weren't on board. That's something new for 2020. They now work thousands of miles away in their own homes interpreting the data thanks to new software developed out of necessity in a COVID-19 world.

Systems on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's P-3 aircraft communicate with researchers, meteorologists and modelers on the ground in real time to produce accurate forecast updates. Usually, about three or four researchers from NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, keep track of those systems to make sure no errors occur, like a drop in satellite connection.

This year, meteorologists and researchers needed to rely on the technology without being on board. So, the research division and NOAA's Aircraft Operation Center worked together to develop new software capable of checking for errors on board NOAA's P-3 aircraft, for which meteorologists or engineers can then adjust, said Frank Marks, director of the hurricane research division at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

"I actually pitched the idea for this software last year. We were supposed to be good to roll it out in the 2021 hurricane season, but with COVID, it was necessary to get the software working sooner than later," Marks said.

Before 2020, previous missions consisted of at least 18 crew members including multiple meteorologists, engineers, flight crew, engineers, system technicians, navigators and scientists of various other organizations. But the need to follow COVID-19 health guidelines was emphasized after five employees of the operations center, which runs hurricane reconnaissance missions out of Lakeland Linder International Airport, tested positive for COVID-19.

About 70 employees were tested following one employee's positive test results. Prior to the infections, the center had already enforced new health guidelines to avoid an outbreak. The number of crew members per mission was cut in half down to nine members while time spent cleaning the aircraft pre- and post-flight increased, and a health officer was assigned to monitor the wellness of flight crews.

 

Crews are now made up of three pilots, two flight engineers, one flight director, one navigator, one systems technician and a dropsonde operator - a dropsonde is a weather tool that measures various storm aspects.

The new error-checking algorithm software made its debut at the beginning of June as part of the recon mission to observe Tropical Storm Cristobal, which formed on the first day of the hurricane season that runs June 1-Nov 30, and was the earliest "C" named storm on record since 2016. Admittedly, it was a smaller storm, but Marks' team was determined to observe the software work with crews as a test run in aiding remote meteorology.

"We wanted to be up in the air for Cristobal so when a Laura eventually emerged, we would be ready for it," Marks said.

The software didn't work as well as the team had hoped during Cristobal missions, experiencing glitches in the data flow, but improvements were made to the tech over the summer. By the time Laura formed, the first major hurricane of the season, the software performed acceptable measures allowing meteorologists to create a forecast model they were proud of, Marks said.

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