Monday, April 24, 2017

The Eye of the Hurricane: Eye of the Storm: NASA, Drones, and the Race to Crack the Hurricane Code by Amy Cherrix

When school was called off on October 22, 2012, thirteen-year-old Angela Dresch excitedly messaged her friend from the windy beach near her home:


By 6:28 p.m., the situation on Staten Island had deteriorated. Angela sent a last frantic text to her friend.


In what looked like a scene from a disaster movie, a fourteen-foot ocean swell rolled into her neighborhood like a tidal wave. The whole dining room was ripped off the house.

Hurricane Sandy had arrived.

Hurricane Sandy was called a super storm, 1,100 miles in diameter as it approached land. The people of the northern Atlantic, especially coastal New Jersey and New York, knew it was coming, but not what it would bring--a storm surge of wild water with waves up to 40 feet high, into a heavily populated area on the coast, flooding rains, and a three-foot snowstorm in West Virginia.

The meteorologists at NOAA knew a big storm was coming, but their hurricane hunters, intrepid pilots who flew into its eye, reported the wind speeds would make Sandy only a Category 1 storm, far from the worst the coast had experienced. People battened down to ride out the storm in place, What they didn't know about Super Storm Sandy's last hours offshore resulted in the deaths of 117 people in the U.S., including thirteen-year-old Angela Dresch.

One thing NOAA knew they needed to know was how a fast a tropical storm is intensifying. Scientists know many phenomena--wind sheer, approaching high pressure centers over land, and the current phase in lunar tides--can quickly change the path, speed, and deadliness of storms.

But one mystery remains--how to gauge the potential for the rapid intensification of the winds which determine the danger to humans from such storms.

Enter the mission, named Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) and of the Global Hawk, a large unmanned drone aircraft. A land-bound "crew" of more than 200 meteorologists, engineers, and physicists are assigned the task of of revolutionizing the way hurricanes are predicted. Starting in 2011, the scientists began to develop the procedures and equipment to measure the rate of intensification in dangerous hurricanes, the better to determine whether people in the path of a storm should be evacuated. They utilized the new tools of their trade--AVAS, Advanced Vertical Atmospheric Profiling, a technique in which measuring devices called dropsondes, released from the drone frequently to transmit data which tells how the storm is developing, CPL, Cloud Physics Lidar, using laser scanning to report cloud formations. There was just one problem. Their project was funded for only three hurricane seasons, and coming down the home stretch, there had been no major hurricanes to study during this period.

Enter Tropical Storm Edouard. At last the big, sleek drone, Global Hawk, is readied to fly and follow the storm as it intensifies into a major hurricane--a chance to learn how to predict how fast hurricane winds intensify as they approach landfall.

The onboard technology is ready, and the drone pilots for the 24-hour mission are at their computers, ready for lift off.  The big drone takes off almost silently, and the various scientists take their seats in front of their various devices, ready to analyze data as it flows back in. There is no big drama in this liftoff--no roaring engines, scuttling ground crews or media swarm--just drone pilots and scientists bathed in the glow of their screens as they follow the progress of their aircraft, flying hundreds of miles away, going where no craft has gone for so long before.

The Global Hawk flies perfectly, its instruments perform flawlessly, and the careful return descent is carefully calculated to preserve their precious data. Then comes the big moment.

Hollywood couldn't have written a better ending than this perfect flight during the last weeks of the mission. The Global Hawk touches down on the tarmac in a whisper-soft textbook landing.

In her forthcoming Eye of the Storm: NASA, Drones, and the Race to Crack the Hurricane Code (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) author Amy Cherrix points out that for these jubilant scientists their work is just beginning. Data will be downloaded, studied, evaluated. Scientific papers will be written, peer-reviewed, and published. Science is long, and it will be a while before the knowledge from the flight of Global Hawk is ready to be put to use by the National Weather Service and local authorities  making the call for hurricane preparation in threatened areas, but the flight of Global Hawk will provide information that may save lives of people like Angela Dresch and the others who died needlessly in Super Storm Sandy.

This most recent in excellent Scientists in the Field, this new title captures the drama of those scientists who work outside the ivory towers to collect the raw data upon which scientific advances are made, bit by bit. Author Cherrix offers an accessible explanation of hurricane development and individualizes the key people with so much at stake in their research mission. Dresch's dramatic opening and a readable narration capture the quiet but essential discoveries that may save future lives. Appended is the essential glossary of the alphabet soup of terms, an extensive bibliography for researching students, a helpful section on home hurricane preparedness, chapter notes, and an index.

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