Hurricanes are quite a site to behold, but what about from within the eye of the storm itself. During the course of every hurricane season, the National Hurricane Center sends Air Force reconnaissance aircraft called "Hurricane Hunters" into the storm to measure the temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind speed.
Recently, the NHC unveiled a new aircraft called the Gulfstream, which flies to higher levels in the atmosphere and around the periphery of a tropical storm or hurricane to obtain the upper level dynamics near the storm itself. This gives forecasters a better idea of what the storm will do in terms of intensification and future motion.
Chris Landsea, a hurricane researcher for NOAA had the opportunity to fly around the periphery of Hurricane Keith on the Gulfstream. Hurricane Keith was a very powerful hurricane that affected Belize and the Yucatan. We had the chance to talk to Chris about his experience with the Hurricane Hunters, and here's what he had to say.
Chris Landsea is a very well known hurricane researcher with NOAA. He has been investigating and researching hurricanes and tropical storms for many years now. His research has included work with Dr. William Gray, the preeminent tropical forecaster at the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University in Gray's seasonal forecasts.
Landsea was investigating Hurricane Keith, which was a tropical disturbance that developed in the Southwestern Caribbean during the last week of September, 2000. It would develop into a Category Four Hurricane with winds of 135 mph, and was the most powerful storm to affect the Western Caribbean region of Central America since Hurricane Mitch in October, 1998.
Landsea, went to investigate Hurricane Keith with the Hurricane Hunters in the new Gulfstream research jet, which flies into the upper levels of the atmosphere in the vicinity of the storm so that they could get better data on what the storm was going to do in terms of its future motion and intensification.The Gulfstream jet is the latest innovation by NOAA to investigate hurricanes in order to better understand them so that they can accurately forecast them. The researchers feel that this latest innovation is a great tool that will supplement the data already provided by the Hurricane Hunter aircraft that fly directly into these storms. Chris Landsea spent a lot of time investigating Keith's surrounding environment as it chugged toward Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Here is what we discussed.
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Below is the conversation that we had with Chris Landsea. This conversation developed over the course of a few e-mails between us and Chris. This particular conversation pertained to the recent trip Chris made into the vicinity of Category Four Hurricane Keith as it was approaching landfall over the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. We thank Chris for sharing his experiences with us, and allowing us to put them on our web site.
GM: For review purposes, please tell us what storm did you fly into recently before we last spoke. I believe it was Hurricane Keith wasn't it?
CL: Yes, the last one that I flew was around Hurricane Keith.
GM: What was the date and time that you flew into the storm?
CL: We flew three days in a row around Hurricane Keith, October 2nd, 3rd and 4th. All of the flights took off at 1:30pm and landed around 10pm. All of our flights left from McDill Air Force Base in Tampa and returned there as well since the storm did not threaten the Base.
GM: Where was the storm located when you and the Hurricane Hunters flew into it?
CL: On the 2nd, it was hitting Belize as a hurricane. On the third it was over land over the Yucatan of Mexico. On the fourth, it was back over the Gulf of Mexico and regaining strength. I should clarify here that I was flying aboard the NOAA Gulfstream IV aircraft which flies around the hurricanes, but not typically through them. The mission of the Gulfstream jet is to monitor the environmental conditions around the hurricanes to help the National Hurricane Center forecasters to better predict the motion and intensity of the storms.
GM: What was the intensity of the storm at the time you all flew in there?
CL: On the 2nd, it was a 65 kt hurricane. On the 3rd, it was a tropical
depression. On the 4th, it was an intensifying tropical storm.
GM: Can you give me a description of the flight into the storm before you reached the eye or the center of circulation? What was it like once the Hurricane Hunter aircraft reached the eye? What was the cloud structure of the storm, and the view of the seas below that you could see while in the eye?
CL: These questions were more designed to describe what it's like to fly into a hurricane, where we flew around the storm. For the most part, the Gulfstream IV flights are VERY smooth. Occasionally, we do go through an outer rainband, but the turbulence is usually weak and short-lived. However, I have flown into several hurricanes aboard the NOAA Orion P-3 aircraft in past years. Here's a little write up on what that is like:
"The most incredible sight that I've ever seen is in the middle of a strong hurricane. One might not believe this, but most hurricane flights are fairly boring. They last 10 hours, there are clouds above you and clouds below - so all you see is gray, and you don't feel the winds swirling around the hurricane. But what does get interesting is flying through the hurricane's rainbands and the eyewall, which can get a bit turbulent. The eyewall is a donut-like ring of thunderstorms that surround the calm eye."
"The winds within the eyewall can reach as much as 200 mph [325 km/hr] at the flight level, but you can't feel these aboard the plane. But what makes flying through the eyewall exhilarating and at times somewhat scary, are the turbulent updrafts and downdrafts that one hits. Those flying in the plane definitely feel these wind currents (and sometimes makes us reach for the air-sickness bags). These vertical winds may reach up to 50 mph [80 km/hr] either up or down, but are actually much weaker in general than what one would encounter flying through a continental supercell thunderstorm."
"...But once the plane gets into the calm eye of a hurricane like Andrew or Gilbert, it is a place of powerful beauty: sunshine streams into the windows of the plane from a perfect circle of blue sky directly above the plane, surrounding the plane on all sides is the blackness of the eyewall's thunderstorms, and directly below the plane peeking through the low clouds one can see the violent ocean with waves sometimes 60 feet high [20 m] crashing into one another. The partial vacuum of the hurricane's eye (where one tenth of the atmosphere is gone) is like nothing else on earth. I would much rather experience a hurricane this way - from the safety of a plane - than being on the ground and having the hurricane's full fury hit without protection..."
GM: Could you describe for everyone what was your role when flying into this
CL: For the Gulfstream jet flights around Keith, my role is to help provide atmospheric data back to the National Hurricane Center. We (meaning the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center crew) drop 20 or more dropwindsondes out of a shoot in the belly of the plane.
These little one pound parachuted instruments provide vertical measurements of the atmosphere (temperature, humidity, pressure and winds) from flight level (about 40-45,000 feet up) to the ocean surface.I examine the data that the dropsonde sends us, correct any problems in the data and send it via a satellite phone hookup back to Miami. By the end of the flight, we have a pretty good idea just based on the dropsondes where the storm is headed and how strong it may be.
GM: Have you flown into other storms? If so, could you tell us which ones?
CL: Hmmm, let's see. On the Gulfstream IV this year, I've been flying around Keith, Joyce, Gordon, Debby and Chris. Last year, Irene. In '98, Bonnie and Georges. On the P-3s, I've flown into Dennis and Floyd ('99), Danielle ('98), Debby, Edouard, Hortense and Lili ('96), Opal ('95), Gilbert ('88). On the NASA DC-8, I flew into Super typhoon Flo in 1990 out in the Northwest Pacific.
GM: What our your thoughts on this particular hurricane season? A lot of people in the media have been saying that it has not been as active as expected. Hasn't it been quite the contrary in terms of the shear numbers? Do you think that the media is doing the public a disservice by saying things like that in terms of making people have a false sense of security?
CL: It's been a busy year whether you measure it by frequency, intensity or duration. With 14 tropical storms, 8 becoming hurricanes and 3 of those reaching major hurricane status, 2000 was an active hurricane season. The folks in Belize and Mexico will also attest that it was a busy (and nasty) hurricane season for them too.
We've been fortunate in the U.S. this year that most of the hurricanes did not make landfall. This as far as we know - was more a matter of luck that the trough in the jet stream remained along the US Atlantic coast virtually all summer, causing the storms to recurve out at sea.
I think that some folks may have lost perspective because 1998 and 1999 were EXTREMELY busy. In comparison, 2000 was simply busy, but it looks much quieter in perspective. No one seriously thought that 2000 would be as overall active (measured in terms of total numbers, how strong they got and how long they lasted) as the last two years.
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