How Scientists Predict Hurricanes

Every year, coastal regions brace themselves for massive, violent storms. To better prepare communities, scientists use technology such as aircraft and satellites, to collect storm data and increase the accuracy of hurricane prediction and warning by as much as 30 percent. 

Here are two of the world’s most powerful “meteorologists” helping scientists predict hurricanes with more accuracy. 


THE WEATHERBIRD

To better track the speed, direction and strength of hurricanes, Air Force Reserve Command’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, operates the WC-130J Hercules. This airplane, with its rugged structure and robust wings, is able to withstand 170 mph winds without special padding or materials.

The Weatherbird can stay aloft for more than 12 hours, which is just enough time to pierce the eyewall (the center of a hurricane) four or five times during a mission to capture imagery of the eye. 


Firsthand Experience
Lockheed Martin employee Jeff Rhodes had the opportunity to fly with the Hurricane Hunters several years ago and described the experience as the following:

“I would liken it to flying through a shaken-up snow globe—until the crew broke through the eyewall. Then it was like walking into a stadium—clear blue sky above and clear green water below. We could actually see the curvature of the storm in the distance.

Ironically, the higher the storm’s category, the “smoother” the ride is. I went through a Category 5 storm and it was 12-plus hours of what felt like riding down a rough gravel road, but I actually ate lunch during the third pass through the eye.”


To gauge wind speed and barometric pressure, the crew uses 16-inch, biodegradable rainfall and wind speed and direction data gathering instruments, called dropsondes. These long, lightweight tubes with mini parachutes are released at regular intervals through the storm.

As a dropsonde descends, it relays information to the aircraft, which is compiled and sent to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, via satellite link. 

EYES IN THE SKY


The next breakthrough in predicting hurricanes is the newest member of our weather satellite constellation, GOES-16. Once it goes “live” in November, the satellite will provide faster, more accurate data, resulting in improved hurricane tracking.

Planned to “go East,” GOES-16 will be placed in orbit where it can observe the continental U.S., and monitor areas most vulnerable to tornadoes, floods, land-falling tropical storms, hurricanes and other severe storms.

By scanning the Earth and skies five times faster than current weather satellites and providing more accurate data, forecasters see more details in storm systems, especially during periods of rapid strengthening or weakening.

One unique innovation on this satellite is the Geostationary Lightning Mapper that maps lightning in real-time. It will take hundreds of images every second in near-infrared, mapping both cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning. This imagery provides scientists with critical information, including frequency and location, to identify developing severe storms much earlier.

Recently, we got a glimpse of the capability of the lightning mapper during Tropic Storm Cindy. 


In case you were wondering how people predicted weather before technology, we have you covered:

One way people forecasted weather prior to technology was by staring at the clouds. Puffy clouds, known as cumulus, typically mean that it’s going to be a clear day. Thin, wispy cirrus clouds indicate that bad weather is brewing. 


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