A whale of a project: How high-altitude instruments are helping fight America’s hurricanes


Thank you for your interest in an observatory to track three upcoming Atlantic hurricanes that will impact the U.S. between the Memorial Day holiday weekend to the end of September, and for its release of a data set on ocean temperatures from two recent storms. This system will send “one of the most diverse” observations of Atlantic hurricanes to date from the U.S. Navy’s advanced research lab at the Naval Postgraduate School. A vast dataset of data on the depths of the oceans will make it possible to track all nine tropical storms and hurricanes that will affect the Atlantic during the current winter season. Such a collection has been difficult to achieve before because of limited access to deep-ocean water.

Further, NOAA’s Arthur Forman Jr. conducted one of the best-documented observations of Caribbean sea surface temperatures, which is important for predicting hurricane intensity. It indicated that the Caribbean waters in December and January were significantly warmer than normal. Forman demonstrated that this in turn could enhance the intensity of a storm. In turn, the heated waters may trigger these storms by affecting the size of surface waves, the ratio of dry air to moisture and the rate at which the deep ocean pools. All of these elements have an impact on the speed and extent of the hurricane’s development.

Whichever Caribbean sea surface temperatures are considered in hurricane rating criteria – what is referred to as the “windscale” – as their models attempt to identify which of the 10 warmest months are most conducive to hurricane development. They may also adjust for local or regional characteristics for each of the 10 months based on the “hydrological cycle” of the Caribbean. To date, no such automatic “sunshine” adjustment has been incorporated.

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