Magazine article Oceanus

New Air-Launched Devices Help Study Hurricanes: ALAMO FLOATS COLLECT KEY OCEAN DATA TO IMPROVE STORM FORECASTS

Magazine article Oceanus

New Air-Launched Devices Help Study Hurricanes: ALAMO FLOATS COLLECT KEY OCEAN DATA TO IMPROVE STORM FORECASTS

Article excerpt

To hear Steve Jayne tell it, flying into hurricanes with the U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters is no worse than landing in Chicago during a thunderstorm.

"The turbulence isn't that bad," he said recently before departing to fly through Hurricane Irma. "They avoid big thunderheads, and they'll let you know if there's turbulence so you can sit down or take a knee. I've had worse turbulence on commercial flights, to be honest."

Jayne is an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies the processes that create ocean currents or that mix the ocean from the surface to its depths. He's taking to the air because it's the only way to get his instruments into one of the most dangerous and poorly understood places: the ocean directly in front of a large storm. It's also the only way to get data that will help fulfill scientists' long-sought desire to improve predictions of hurricane intensity, which is now a weak spot in hurricane forecasts.

"Right now, we're much better at predicting where a hurricane will make landfall than we are at predicting how big it will be when it does," said Jayne.

To get the data, Jayne and his WHOI colleague Breck Owens knew they couldn't send a ship full of scientists and technicians in front of a monstrous, fast-moving hurricane. They also couldn't rely on satellites peering down from a safe distance, because electromagnetic radiation--including light--won't penetrate deeper than a few feet beneath the surface of the ocean. So they turned to something that is relatively new to ocean science, but has already proved its worth: robotic Argo floats.

Since 1999, the Argo program has built a flotilla of nearly 4,000 autonomous floats that have drifted to virtually every corner of the world's oceans. Argo floats are designed to change their own buoyancy by pumping oil in and out of an external bladder. After being launched, they sink to 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) below the surface, where they drift for ten days. Then they sink to 6,600 feet (2,000 meters) before heading back to the surface, recording the temperature and salinity of the water as they rise. Once at the surface, they send their data via satellite to scientists on shore before sinking again to 1,000 meters and drifting for another ten days. Ocean scientists such as Jayne use the data to tease out critical details about how deeply ocean waters are warming.

This information is crucial to hurricane forecasts. A large storm gathers energy from warm water at the surface of the ocean. As its winds blow across the water, they can mix this warm surface layer with colder water hundreds of feet below. If the warm layer is thick enough, it will resist mixing, and a storm will gain more energy and continue growing as it moves. …

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