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NASA, NOAA team seeks secret of hurricane's power

Convection and Moisture Experiment-3

GOES-8 CONUS Visible iconAugust 12, 1998: (this is the first in a series of stories covering the ongoing CAMEX mission to hunt hurricane data in a way not done since the 50s. The complete series of stories is linked in below.)

Sunlight heats the Eastern Atlantic Ocean. Water evaporates, rises, and forms rain, surrendering its heat to the air and accelerating the rise. Air flows in on the surface to replace rising air, barometric pressure drops, air masses slowly start circling.

The tropical depression becomes a tropical storm, winds grow steadily until they pass the 110-km/h (60-knot) mark and keep rising, perhaps 368 km/h (200 knots) or more.

maritime flag warning for hurricanesA hurricane is born - the flags at the left are the international maritime warning - and for the next few weeks, it is the focal point for hundreds of meteorologists and disaster management experts.

Top, right: The current GOES-8 image of the North America. Click on the image to go to the Global Hydrology and Climate Center's Interactive Global Geostationary Weather Satellite Image Viewer and see what's brewing.

The pattern is repeating now as the 1998 hurricane season opens. This year will be different, though. For the first time since the 1950s, research scientists will be looking at the upper levels of the storms, not just the middle altitudes that are braved by hurricane hunter teams.

Note: More details are available in the NASA press release describing CAMEX-3. Check back as hurricane season progresses. We will post science updates as the campaign develops.

PIX: High resolution scans of 35mm camera photos from the CAMEX-3 campaign are available from Public Affairs Office at NASA headquarters. Please call the NASA Headquarters Photo Department at 202-358-1900, or contact Bill Ingalls at bingalls@hq.nasa.gov.


CAMEX Series Headlines

August 12: Overview CAMEX story , describes the program in detail. (this story)
August 13: CAMEX maiden flight
, for calibration of TRMM satellite instruments
August 14: CAMEX test flights , CAMEX flies over tropical storm weather in successful calibration run
August 18: CAMEX aircraft make second flight with TRMM , second calibration run for TRMM
August 20: CAMEX may get first chance at a tropical storm , later this week 
August 21: Here comes Bonnie! , CAMEX scheduled to fly over T.S. Bonnie 
August 22: West by Northwest , CAMEX team may have to evacuate to Georgia 
August 24: Eye-to-eye, and Bonnie winks, CAMEX team makes first flight through eye 
August 25: Snow in August, Bonnie surprises the hurricane team 
August 26: Camera of many colors Hurricane hunters using advanced scanner to peer into storms
August 28: Preparing for Danielle NASA team takes break as Bonnie fades away
August 31: Quite a Windfall Hurricane team completes first half of unique science campaign
September 2: Bonnie Cuts a Towering Figure Satellite radar shows mountainous cloud chimney
September 4: Hurricane team studies EarlFour aircraft probe storm
September 10: NASA team awaits next hurricane
September 16: Hurricane season passing its primeThunderstorm studies continue as a new hurricane candidate wends its way from Africa.
September 18: Two new storms brewing for hurricane research team Scientists fly 4 out of 5 days, clear air sampled over the Bahamas, oceanic convection data collected east of Cape Canaveral
September 21:The last hurricane - CAMEX team wrapping up campaign with flights into Georges
September 23: Hurricane Georges puts on a light show- CAMEX team treated to purple sprites and weird lightning

NCAR has an extensive writeup on the GPS dropsondes used in CAMEX-3 and other atmospheric campaigns.

A new study - not related to CAMEX-3 - by the Arizona State University suggests a link between hurricanes in the northwest Atlantic and air pollution.

The third Convection and Moisture Experiment (CAMEX-3) is under way with the arrival at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., south of Cape Canaveral, of two NASA aircraft outfitted with a suite of instruments.

Left: Hurricanes are among the most devastating natural phenomena, as seen in this picture of damage caused by Andrew in 1992.

"This is part of ongoing research that NASA is conducting to study the whole Earth and its atmosphere," said Robbie Hood, the CAMEX-3 project scientist. "Our real goal is to provide data that could be used eventually to save lives. We can bring NASA technology to an experiment and to help save lives in the future."

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Hood, assigned to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, works at the Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville, Ala. For the next few weeks she will be at Patrick AFB, directing operations with NASA's ER-2 and DC-8 aircraft and coordinating observations by scientists from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several universities.

Hurricanes are cyclonic storms whose power becomes greater toward the center, almost like water swirling ever faster as it goes down a drain. The winds are greatest at the core where they shear away to leave a calm "eye" in the center. (Typhoon is the name given cyclonic storms in the North Pacific Ocean. Tornadoes sometimes are called cyclones, but they are as different from hurricanes as a jazz dancer and a sumo wrestler. )

On average, hurricanes are no more powerful than ever. But more people live in coastal regions, and they have built more homes and businesses for hurricanes to destroy. So, the need to understand the mechanics of hurricanes increases each year as human populations grow in coastal areas.

CAMEX-3 aircraft carry several instruments developed under the sponsorship of NASA/Marshall, including:

  • Advanced Microwave Precipitation Radiometer (AMPR) aboard the ER-2. AMPR "listens" to the rain. Actually, it measures how the rain absorbs normal microwave emissions that the Earth always emits, like a person's body temperature. AMPR can mimic microwave instruments aboard polar orbit weather satellites, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), and a radiometer planned for the Earth Observing System. Hood is also the principal investigator for AMPR.
  • Lightning Instrument Package (LIP) aboard the ER-2 and DC-8. LIP consists of probes that measure atmospheric electricity conditions around the aircraft.
  • Multispectral Atmospheric Mapping Sensor (MAMS)aboard the ER-2. MAMS measures eight visible and near-infrared channels to map water vapor content.
  • Multicenter Airborne Coherent Atmospheric Wind Sensor (MACAWS) aboard the DC-8 (right). This is an eye-safe laser that measures wind speeds. The laser scans fore and aft and measures the Doppler (red or blue shift) of the light bouncing back from dust, droplets, and other particles carried by the wind. Combining two different measurements at the same point will give the wind speed and direction.

While they have been used extensively in storm campaigns, they have not been flown together. In addition, the CAMEX-3 instrument suite comprises radar, visible and infrared sensors, three laser-based instruments, and dropsondes, which are instrument packages that are parachuted into the storm.

"Intensity is the big thing," Hood said. "The hurricane community has made great strides in making more accurate forecasts and tracking. But how intense that hurricane's going to be when it hits the shoreline - or why some storms die out and others just keep going and going - is the important factor."

It all comes down to thermodynamics, the physics of heat. Water absorbs energy from the air or sunlight when it goes from sea surface to vapor, and surrenders energy to the air when it turns from vapor to rain drops.

Where the energy changes hands is what powers the hurricane, pumping up the winds which ultimately do most of the damage either directly or by driving waves ashore to form a storm surge.

To measure that energy exchange in seemingly clear air as well as in clouds, NASA will take a different look than hurricane hunters normally take.

"The big thing is that we're flying at higher altitudes than the other agencies normally fly," Hood said. "Routine flights at these altitudes haven't been done in the Atlantic since the 1950s. The DC-8 and the ER-2 each have done it once out in the Pacific, but no one had focused on Atlantic hurricanes. "

DC-8 jetlinerThe DC-8 (right) is a jetliner modified to carry scientific equipment instead of passengers. Most of the instruments look through optical ports designed to give a crystal clear view that passengers never get through scratched plastic windows.

The ER-2 (below) is the Earth research version of the famous U-2 spy plane. It carries fewer instruments, but at altitudes twice as high as the DC-8, 21 km (70,000 ft.) as compared to 10 km (33,000 ft.). In addition, the instruments are different from the equipment that NOAA carries on its WP-3D Orion aircraft (modified submarine hunters).

"The big thing is that we're bringing space flight technology to bear," Hood said. "A lot of these instruments either have versions flying on satellites now or are prototypes for new satellites. We're bring NASA technology to the picture, satellite and remote sensing technology in particular, and we're trying to give the hurricane research community data that they don't have, data at high altitude where their aircraft don't fly."

NASA will even use lasers to gauge wind speeds and directions.

"MACAWS - the Multicenter Airborne Coherent Atmospheric Wind Sensor - is what I consider to be cutting edge; that's brand-new technology," Hood said.

"We want to see how well MACAWS measures the wind structure within the storm. It has the potential to measure both horizontal and vertical winds, and that's something that's really important to understand if you are trying to understand what the hurricane's going to do. But it has limitations. It doesn't work in dense clouds."

Right: A typical flight plan for the vortex experiment is overlaid on a satellite image of Hurricane Fran from Sept. 4, 1996. The yellow lines indicate the paths of both the ER-2 and DC-8 starting from Patrick AFB on the east coast of Florida. The red dots indicate indicate where dropsondes - instrumented pacakages - will be parachuted into the storm. A similar pattern will be flown for the eye dynamics experiment. On one diagonal, the DC-8 will spiral down into the eye for detailed measurements. The ER-2 will fly a figure-8 so it can resume a parallel track with the DC-8. At right, both aircraft fly a set of bent diagonals in order to measure wind speeds. Credits: NASA. Links to a 1280x1024-pixel, 467K JPG. A smaller 640x512, 124K JPG has major geographic features labeled. Credit: NASA.

MACAWS and other instruments aboard the aircraft will produce several gigabytes of data that will be the eventual legacy of CAMEX-3.

"We're going to push real hard to get the data on line as soon as possible," Hood said. Browse or summary versions of the data will be available in 3 months, and the first complete data sets will be available starting in 6 months.

"NASA scientists will be doing hurricane research, but the bigger goal is to provide the data to the whole hurricane research community," Hood said.

It's not the biggest weather exercise NASA has ever mounted to study tropical meteorology - the TOGA-CORE project in 1995 in the Pacific was - but it holds the record for the Atlantic.

OTD image of Hurricane Linda (1997)Like a hurricane, CAMEX-3 started small and gathered strength. The CAMEX 1 and 2 experiments were modest activities staged out of NASA's Wallops Flight Center on Wallops Island, Va., and just using the ER-2.

"CAMEX-3 started off as a really small, quiet experiment, and got big really fast," Hood explained. "NASA looked at all these instruments it had doing similar things and said, 'Well, why don't we pull these things together, they're all so complementary, why don't we pull them all together for one big experiment?'."

Above : If the timing and other factors work out right, the Lightning Imaging Sensor aboard the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (TRMM) satellite will observe at the same time as the ER-2 and DC-8. An example of the data that may be returned can be seen in this picture of lightning flashes in the eyewall and rainbands of Hurricane Linda as observed by the NASA Optical Transient Detector (OTD; an LIS forerunner) on Sept. 12, 1997 (2115-2119 UTC). The flashes are superimposed on the OTD near-infrared background images. Links to 600x114-pixel, 82K GIF. Credit: NASA/Global Hydrology and Climate Center. A realvideo movie of Hurricane Linda is also available. (Requires Realvideo player, version 5. Click to download the RealVideo Player from RealNetworks, Inc.)

It was merged with the Texas-Florida Underflight (TEFLUN) experiment in which the DC-8 and ER-2 fly along the same track as the TRMM satellite to help calibrate the satellite's radar, microwave, and lightning instruments.

Other federal agencies also recognized this as an opportunity to broaden their research, and soon CAMEX-3 was growing. It now involves five aircraft, several satellites, and dozens of ground-based meteorology stations across the western Atlantic.

"It's a partnership," Hood continued. "We're trying to teach them more about our remote sensing techniques. The operational community is going to show us what works and what doesn't work, so in the long run it's going to help NASA design better satellites."

plywood through a treeBut first, they have to take the test models through the hurricanes. The ER-2 pilot will have the easiest ride since he will be well above the clouds and turbulence. The DC-8 crew will be flying near the top of the hurricane where relatively little work has been done with modern instruments.

Right: One example of a hurricane's wind energy is this sheet of plywood driven through the trunk of a palm tree.

"We're going to be really cautious," Hood said. "The prediction from NOAA is that it is not going to be much worse than flying through regular clouds." But the DC-8 crew will pick safe areas and avoid regions with hail, dense rain, and other indications that the storm could knock them down. "We're going to try not to go through severe turbulence."

The teams will also fly well-defined patterns in an effort to get simultaneous measurements at low, medium, and high altitudes. One pattern will trace three diagonals across the hurricane. On one leg, the DC-8 will spiral down into the eye, then climb back out and resume its track across the hurricane. The ER-2 will fly a figure-8 so it will be in place to resume the same leg in place with the DC-8. Another pattern will slightly bend the diagonals to match the circulation patterns within the storm.

Unlike a space mission, this campaign has no preset flight dates. It has a certain number of flying hours budgeted, so the team will use them carefully as the storm approaches land. Hood is especially interested in what happens as the storms makes landfall and the energetic interplay of air and water is changed.

Web Links
August 13 Update: Calibration flight planned today - CAMEX first flight to validate Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite measurements.
CAMEX-3
home page contains links to daily flight operations and instrument descriptions.
Lightning Imaging Sensor aboard the TRMM satellite observes lightning from above the clouds - and my lead to better warnings on the ground.
MACAWS uses the Doppler effect (red and blue shifts) to measure wind velocity.
SPARCLE is a Space Shuttle experiment set for 2001 to demonstrate laser wind measurement from space.
Because this is a research mission that will generate volumes requiring months of analysis, there will be virtually no benefit to hurricane forecasters this year. As understanding grows out of the studies, meteorologists will recognize a few key aspects of a hurricane's life that, properly diagnosed, will help them in predicting where the most damage if likely to occur.

More web links
  • More Space Science Headlines - NASA research on the web
  • The Marshall Newsroom - more information on this and other news from the Marshall Space Flight Center
  • NASA's Earth Science Enterprise Information on Earth Science missions, etc.
  • Global Hydrology and Climate Center studies the global water cycle and its effect on climate.
  • National Hurricane Center carries the latest tracking information on tropical storms and hurricanes. It also has lots of historical data and images, including hi-res copies of the pictures above of damage by Hurricane Andrew.
  • The Public Use of Remote Sensing Data at Goddard Space Flight Center has high-resolution images of Fran (including the original of the image used in this story), Andrew, and other hurricanes and of other events seen from space.