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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

"It's challenging when you are working virtually, but the flight crew was phenomenal," Marks said. "I was amazed at how well the virtual work turned out."

Michael Holmes was the flight director during the Laura recon mission, which began its first flight on Aug. 20 and continued to fly missions into and around Laura until Aug. 26. The crew was stationed in St. Croix and intercepted Laura as a tropical storm 600 miles east of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The role of the flight director is similar to a football quarterback in communicating with multiple parties including researcher, meteorologists, engineers and pilots. Usually the crew would be on board discussing with Holmes where to pass through the storm in order to deploy dropsondes. The flight into Laura was quieter than in previous missions, Holmes said.

"Usually the bigger the storm, the more people on the plane," Holmes said. That wasn't the case for Laura, which at the height of its power had tropical storm-force winds extend 205 miles away from its center. "We did most of our planning for how we would make our approach into Laura before our flight. We do talk with researchers online during the flight, but we try not to have long chats on the internet," the latter of which was to avoid putting a strain on data flow coming out of the aircraft.

Because hurricane environments are rare gold mines for scientific data, the data collected from each mission is not only important to the National Hurricane Center but also to a number of other entities including the Environmental Modeling Center, the Hurricane Research Division and other interested parties, Holmes said.

Data is then used toward calibrating forecast models and research models, which is why it's so important for the data flow to be occurring in real time without glitches, Holmes said.

"Even a 5-second satellite drop can create a huge hiccup between the aircraft data and (ground systems), giving the models inaccurate information," Holmes said.

 

Meteorologists on the ground analyze the real-time data flow and make requests to the flight director to have the aircraft pass through different sides of the storm to get a better look or measurement of its structure, temperature, humidity and wind speed. Communication is key for these recon missions. Flight missions involving the new technology through hurricanes Isaias, Laura and Nana went very well, Marks said, although sitting at home didn't sit right with the 41-year career veteran, who has flown through more than 120 storms.

"You want be there with them in the air when things get bumpy," Marks said. "Our team members, our colleagues, we're used to going to battle with them, but having them out in the front line while we sit on the bench is an odd feeling."

Admittedly, meteorologists working on the ground during recon missions was inevitable, Marks said. The change occurred ahead of schedule thanks to COVID-19, but the Hurricane Research Division is always looking ahead to improve its ability in gathering data. Having meteorologists on recon flights is not only exhausting for forecasters but it's also expensive, Marks said.

"I have a staff of 50 and a non-growing budget. I have to be mindful of what we need, to improve storm models and data flow," he said. "We developed this technology to keep up with the growing demand of our services. We're researchers but we're working on operational tasks. While I think our guys enjoy their work out there, this was the natural evolution of technology."

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