AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts hurricane hunter Jim Carswell is flying into the eyes of hurricanes again this year, using high-tech weather sensors developed at UMass. These sensors help predict the path and intensity of the storms. Scientists expect this hurricane season, which runs through Oct. 31, to be particularly active. The UMass data is used in computer models relied on by National Hurricane Center forecasters to generate up-to-the-minute predictions on a hurricane’s course. Pinpoint hurricane forecasting gives people in threatened areas time to protect their property and evacuate to safety, according to Carswell, who flew through Hurricane Bret last week.
Flying through the wall of a hurricane "feels like riding a spinning carnival ride, mounted on a roller-coaster," said Carswell, an engineer with the University’s Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL). While flying high in the storm can be smooth, "anywhere below 10,000 feet is very rough. You’re jerking back and forth with a couple of Gs." The remote sensors designed and constructed by researchers at the lab, part of the department of electrical and computer systems engineering, are used to study phenomena ranging from hurricanes, to tornadoes, to lightning. There are two sensors used in hurricanes: a receiver, which passively "listens," and is called a radiometer; and a scatterometer, which sends out a signal, then "listens" for the signal to bounce back.
Satellite images offer an idea of a storm’s location and intensity, Carswell said. But it takes reconnaissance flights to get the more precise information that is critical to forecasting the storm’s path. The predictions must be as accurate as possible, he said, so that neither too few ? nor too many ? people are evacuated. "If a storm behaves in a way that’s unexpected, it’s in those situations our data is crucial," said Carswell. Predicting the course of a hurricane is tricky, he said, because hurricanes are comprised of streams of wind blowing at different speeds and in different directions. Data collected by the weather sensors is beamed by satellite to the National Hurricane Center in Miami every minute.
This is Carswell’s third season as a hurricane hunter, and the eighth year UMass has been involved in reconnaissance missions. He flies along with researchers from the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Aircraft Operations Center. Missions last about 10 hours, and entail anywhere from five to more than 15 passes through a storm’s eye, in one of two P-3 airplanes especially equipped to withstand winds whipping up to 180 miles an hour.