Hurricane researchers using underwater gliders

Updated: Jul. 26, 2019 at 10:14 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Forecasting a hurricane’s path has become more accurate over the past decade, but the intensity or category of a storm isn’t always as precise.

Researchers right here in Savannah are working on fixing that.

Don’t get underwater gliders confused with torpedoes. With no self-propulsion, the underwater vehicles use ocean currents, including the jet stream to glide through the ocean, collecting data.

“We deploy gliders off Cape Canaveral and have them zigzag between the coast and the Gulf Stream, to 60 feet in water depth to about 200 feet in water depth," said Catherine Edwards.

Edwards is a researcher at UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. She essentially talks to the gliders and uses their information for forecasting.

“The data coming in real time can help strengthen that relationship between the models, and therefore improve the hurricane forecast," she said.

Hurricanes feed off warm water, and while we can get sea surface temperatures from satellites, buoys, ships, and even ocean reference stations, what lies below the surface is just as critical for forecasting intensity purposes.

“Because when the storm comes close, it can begin mixing some of that stratification, that temperature difference from surface to bottom, which makes the surface ocean cooler than it would be by SST, and that can mean there’s actually less heat available.”

An example would be Hurricane Florence which was a Category 5 storm but weakened in wind strength to a Category 1 by landfall.

“Having these intensity forecasts better, will really help cause a little bit more faith in the prediction system and have a little bit more trust between emergency managers and the population," Edwards said.

All four gliders at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography have names, one named Modena after the farm that was once there. Angus, another glider, was attacked by a shark, most likely thinking it was a seal or large fish just floating along. The carbon fiber shell has the “scar” to prove it. It took a beating but was recovered by it’s sensor and repaired.

The gliders really do talk to the people responsible for analyzing the data they collect. Catherine remembers another incident where a glider was sending back a little erratic data. When they went to retrieve the glider, they found a large sea turtle trying to mate with it. Other sea creatures like to attach themselves to the gliders, so Edwards has a deterrent and it’s as simple as a stocking like sleeve.

Edwards works with colleagues from other institutions through SECOORA, Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association. Together they are making plans for the 2019 hurricane season. Funded by a $220,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they plan to pre-position a number of gliders in strategic locations to be ready for deployment in advance of incoming storms.

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