UMass Amherst Hurricane Hunters Flying Back Into the Eyes of Storms

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts researchers will be flying into the eyes of hurricanes again this year, using high-tech weather sensors developed at the University.

These airborne sensors help predict the path and intensity of the storms. Scientists expect this hurricane season, which runs thought Oct. 31, to be "above average." Graduate student Toni Castells is already in Tampa, Fla., installing the instruments in the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hurricane-hunting aircraft. Researchers Jim Carswell and David McLaughlin will join him within the week, when the bigger storms are expected to begin brewing. The project is a collaboration between UMass and the NOAA Hurricane Research Division (HRD) and Aircraft Operations Center (AOC). The NOAA groups have been flying into hurricanes since the mid-1970s.

The UMass team is responsible for sending real-time data to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, through a satellite link. This information is used to establish landfall warnings and intensity reports. Pinpoint forecasts give people in threatened areas time to protect their property and evacuate to safety, according to Carswell.

Satellite images can offer an idea of a storm’s location and overall size, Carswell said. But it takes reconnaissance flights to get the more precise information that is critical to forecasting the storm’s path and intensity. Missions last about 10 hours, and entail anywhere from five to more than 15 passes through a storm’s eye, in a cross-shaped pattern, in a NOAA WP-3D airplane equipped to withstand the intense winds and rains of a hurricane.

From the aircraft, the UMass team operates microwave sensors that measure the precipitation in the storm and the winds at the ocean’s surface. The instruments were designed and constructed by researchers at the University’s well-regarded Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL), which McLaughlin heads. The lab is part of the department of electrical and computer systems engineering.

New this year is a system called IWRAP, Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Profiler, which is expected to offer much more detailed information than was available to hurricane forecasters in the past. In previous years, researchers were able to gather information for surface swaths that measured roughly five miles across; the new system enables researchers to determine storm winds and rain for much larger swaths while also pinpointing the intensity within areas as small as 100 square meters. The new system is also expected to be able to provide this information at various altitudes from the ocean’s surface. This fine resolution will make it possible for forecasters to make better predictions about a storm’s intensity and potential path.

"We’ll be able to get very detailed information about the structure of the inner core of the hurricane," said Carswell. "Activity and intensity at the eyewall are critical in making good predictions about how strong a storm is, and where it’s headed." IWRAP will be a critical sensor in the Coupled Boundary Layers/Air-Sea Transfer (CBLAST) project, a five-year initiative funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR). According to McLaughlin, "IWRAP will help us better understand how storms intensify or weaken when they interact with the warm ocean and the cooler atmosphere, ultimately leading to better prediction of a hurricane’s characteristics at landfall."

This is Carswell’s fifth season as a hurricane hunter, and the tenth year UMass has been involved in such reconnaissance missions. The UMass team flies along with researchers from NOAA’s HRD and AOC.

Jim Carswell can be reached at 413/219-6013 or jimcarswell@ieee.org.

David McLaughlin can be reached at 413/219-6003 or mclaughlin@ecs.umass.edu.