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

A Lockheed WP-3D Orion "hurricane hunter" aircraft (N43RF) departs Lakeland Linder International Airport in Lakeland, Fla, in 2019.

JONATHAN SHANNON, NOAA/TNS

By JOE MARIO PEDERSEN | Orlando Sentinel | Published: September 16, 2020

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ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — 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.

“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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