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Technology increasing capabilities in hurricane forecasting

Published: Jun. 20, 2022 at 10:23 AM EDT
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CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - Researchers from across the country are teaming up with the latest in hurricane data collection technology to make sure that our hurricane forecasts continue to improve.

One of those pieces of technology leaves the waters of Chatham County and goes out into the ocean.

Catherine Edwards is an associate professor at the Skidway Institute of Oceanography and also works in the Department of Marines Sciences for the University of Georgia.

With fifteen years of experience, one of her passions is working with hurricane gliders, which are torpedo-shaped autonomous underwater vehicles that collect valuable subsurface data for forecasters across the world.

“This really started a few years ago in 2018 as a national and international effort. Understanding that these gliders can provide a subsurface map of how much heat might be available to potentially fuel a hurricane as it approaches the coast,” said Edwards.

Some of the gliders housed in Savannah are sent out across the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf to collect data such as the salinity of the water and subsea surface temperatures. That data then gets relayed back to forecasters via satellite phone.

“Gliders in a lot of ways are like the weather balloons of the ocean. The ability to get the data in real time, lets us feed them into the operational forecast models of both the ocean and the atmosphere. Ultimately, giving us better predictions that we can use, that decision makers can use to advise on evacuations and storm response,” said Edwards.

Researchers are furthering that goal by pairing up hurricane gliders with another data collection vehicle called a sail drone.

These 23-foot autonomous vehicles are loaded with meteorological and oceanographic instruments that collect sea surface temperatures, air temperatures, wind speed and humidity.

This season will only be the second for the sail drones to be used in partnership with NOAA to improve intensification forecasting.

“The sail drone is a unique platform to be able to go into a hurricane or a tropical system, assess the interaction of air and sea, the flux that is happening there, and send that data back to forecasters in real time,” said Matt Womble, director of ocean data programs with Sail Drone.

In their first season, a sail drone successfully intercepted hurricane Sam, where it experienced 120 mile per hour wind gusts and 50-foot waves.

“Obviously there was a lot of excitement around being able to collect the data, something no other vehicle had been able to really do before intentionally,” said Womble.

Add in the hurricane hunters in the air and now scientists have the ability to collect data from the atmosphere, on the sea surface and below the ocean in the same storm at the same time.

Data that will provide a full vertical picture that will make tropical forecasts even more accurate for years to come.

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