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Into the Storm

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Into the Storm

While most people are trying to avoid the perils of this year's hurricanes, beginning today NASA scientists will be flying right into them!

NASA

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see captionAugust 16, 2001 -- As this year's hurricane season rolls in, a team of researchers participating in a NASA study is waiting. Armed with airplanes, robotic aerial vehicles, and a fleet of sophisticated instruments, they're ready to meet these potentially deadly storms head-on -- gathering data vital to improve hurricane modeling and prediction.

They're part of the Convection And Moisture EXperiment (CAMEX-4) -- the fourth in a series of field research investigations sponsored by NASA's Earth Science Enterprise. The mission unites researchers from 10 universities, five NASA centers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Above: Hurricanes are the largest storm systems on Earth, with winds sometimes reaching a devastating 320 km/h (200 mph)! Scientists will use the data gathered by CAMEX-4 to improve their hurricane modeling and prediction abilities, which in turn will help save property and lives. This image of Hurricane Elana was taken from the shuttle in 1985.

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Based at the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, Florida, this year's mission will run from August 16th through September 24 -- traditionally the most active part of the hurricane season. During CAMEX-4, researchers will gather storm data from multiple sources, including aircraft, unpiloted aerial vehicles, satellite observations and ground-based radar. Unique in this mission is the fact that each storm will be monitored simultaneously from near sea level to 65,000 feet.

Temperature, pressure, humidity, precipitation, wind speed, lightning and ice crystal sizes are examples of the kinds of information that will be collected. These data are expected to provide additional insight to hurricane researchers and forecasters who continually strive to improve our understanding of these storms.

"One reason NASA studies hurricanes is to understand the best way to use information from NASA resources, such as its satellites, to provide better warnings to the American public and people around the world affected by hurricanes," said Robbie Hood, CAMEX mission scientist from the Marshall Space Flight Center's jointly-sponsored Global Hydrology and Climate Center.

Below: NASA's ER-2 high-altitude research airplane will be used in CAMEX-4 to gather scientific data from high above the storms. The resemblance to the U-2 is not a coincidence -- the ER-2 is a non-military variant of the famous military spy plane.

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"During the last CAMEX mission in 1998, we flew over hurricanes and collected a vast amount of data, sampling the hurricanes' upper regions at altitudes of 35,000 feet (10,600 meters) or higher," said Hood. "This year, we're asking ourselves additional questions, such as, 'How does a hurricane intensify?' and, 'What is its rainfall potential after it comes to shore?' The highest number of hurricane-related deaths are due to inland flooding, so inland rainfall is something we will be monitoring very closely."

The CAMEX team plans to fly into the season's hurricanes aboard two NASA planes, the ER-2 and DC-8, both from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. Carrying a series of instruments, these aircraft will fly over, through, and around selected hurricanes as they approach landfall in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and along the east coast of the United States.

Left: CAMEX-4 will be based out of Jacksonville, Florida, and will study storms near the U.S. East Coast, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, which are prime targets for hurricanes during hurricane season. Click on image for a full-size version of the map.

The DC-8, equipped with instruments that will measure the storms' structures, environments and changes in intensity and direction, will fly into storms at 35,000 to 40,000 feet (10,700 to 12,200 meters). At the same time, the specially equipped ER-2, a high-altitude research plane, will soar above storms at 65,000 feet (19,800 meters). 

NASA is also funding the flight of several unpiloted aerial vehicles called Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft, managed in conjunction with the University of Colorado at Boulder. Small, robotic aircraft designed for collection of meteorological data over oceans and remote areas, the Aerosondes will operate over the North Atlantic Ocean taking observations in the lower atmosphere. In the first use of unpiloted aircraft in an operation of this type, the Aerosondes will skim the ocean surface collecting data on atmospheric temperature, pressure, relative humidity, and winds -- data that cannot be obtained by any other method.

Although investigating hurricanes is the primary objective of CAMEX-4, separate flights will study thunderstorm structure, precipitation systems, and atmospheric water vapor profiles. 

This portion of CAMEX-4 is known as the Keys Area Microphysics Project (KAMP). The project seeks improved precipitation estimates from passive and active microwave instruments -- equipment that detects precipitation and surface water by measuring natural microwave emissions from cloud water, cloud ice, rainfall and surface water. Flights for the microphysics project will be approximately 300 nautical miles (560 km) from Key West, Florida.

Right: This image shows precipitation measurements made of Hurricane Bonnie by the Advanced Microwave Precipitation Radiometer (AMPR) aboard the ER-2 aircraft during the CAMEX-3 campaign in 1998. Scientists can use data like this to improve their understanding of hurricanes' dynamics. Click on the image for a graphic showing four different views of Bonnie taken by the AMPR.

Sitting in the path of these violent storms and even flying into their windy hearts is certainly a dangerous job, but because of these storm chasers, people in the future will be better informed about when and where hurricanes are going to strike.

The hurricane study is part of NASA's Earth Science Enterprise, a long-term research program dedicated to better understanding the total Earth system and the effects of natural and human-induced changes on our global environment.

Web Links

CAMEX-4 -- home page from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

CAMEX-4 fact sheet -- information about the Convection And Moisture EXperiment, in Adobe PDF format.

CAMEX-4 latest news -- from MSFC

Hurricanes: how they work and what they do -- background on hurricanes, from NASA's Earth Science Enterprise

NASA's Earth Science Enterprise -- home page

National Hurricane Center -- home page

Airborne science at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center -- information about the ER-2 and DC-8 research aircraft

What Lies Beneath a Hurricane -- Science@NASA article: Two orbiting NASA satellites are giving scientists an unprecedented view of what goes on beneath the obscuring cloud tops of great swirling storms.

The Last Hurricane -- Science@NASA article: CAMEX-3 team wrapping up campaign with flights into Georges

Hurricane Bonnie Cuts a Towering Figure on Satellite Radar -- Science@NASA article: Satellite radar from CAMEX-3 shows mountainous cloud chimney


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