New Airborne Radar Could Be a Game-Changer for Forecasting Hurricanes

The start of June marks the start of hurricane season in the Atlantic

June 1 marks the start of the 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season which extends through November 30. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) seasonal outlook predicts another active, yet near-normal Atlantic hurricane season with 12-17 named storms forecasted, 1-4 becoming major hurricanes. According to the National Hurricane Center, 2022 had only two major hurricanes but was considered one of the costliest seasons on record.

Goose Island State Park, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But experts have noted this season comes with a high level of uncertainty based on a developing El Niño and an unusually warm Atlantic Basin. Strong westerly winds spurred on by El Niño—a natural climate pattern marked by warmer-than-average Pacific Ocean water—tend to prevent nascent Atlantic storms from developing. This occurs because those increased upper-level winds can tear apart hurricanes as they try to form.

NOAA’s National Hurricane Center provides tropical storm and hurricane forecasts and warnings to help mitigate the impact of large storms. Recent technological advances have also helped the cause like the GOES-16 satellite. This satellite makes it possible to see hurricanes and other storms in their formative stages which help weather forecasters stay up to date.

The National Weather Service has invested substantially in supercomputing to gain three-fold processing power in turn reducing storm tracking and location error rates.

Goose Island State Park, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the capability to fly over severe weather and achieve high altitudes for up to 30 hours straight, intelligence gathered by Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk UAV has helped civilian authorities assess storm strength and direction and plan next steps for warnings and disaster relief. In partnership with NASA and NOAA, the Global Hawk UAV has been used to track hurricane intensification.

Next-generation radar technology capable of taking 3D slices of hurricanes and other storms is poised to move ahead after years of fits and starts.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving the news: The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced $91.8 million in funding on June 1— the first day of the Atlantic hurricane season—for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to design, build, and test airborne phased array radar.

The technology consists of thousands of transmitters and receivers on horizontal plates mounted at different points on a plane.

Together, they would scan storms in unprecedented detail from storms’ overall organization to the type, shape, and direction of movement of droplets within the clouds.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why it matters: Currently, NOAA’s aging hurricane research aircraft fly tail-mounted Doppler radars into the heart of hurricanes. But the new APAR could yield significant insights into weather predictions and climate projections.

For example, it could provide a far more detailed picture of the inner structure of a hurricane. The data can then be fed into computer models to warn of sudden intensity changes and track shifts.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Context: Hurricanes are churning out more rainfall than they used to. The storms are more likely to rapidly intensify with several landfalling systems in recent years leaping multiple categories on the Saffir Simpson Scale in just 24 to 36 hours.

In September 2022, Hurricane Ian suddenly jumped from a Category 3 storm to almost a Category 5. It used to be rare for storms to keep strengthening until landfall let alone do so rapidly. Now it is not. Such an intensity leap was made possible by warm ocean temperatures and abundant atmospheric moisture.

During the past several years, there have been multiple storms that rapidly intensified as they neared the Gulf Coast and did so through landfall. Previously, tropical storms and hurricanes tended to weaken as they neared the northern Gulf Coast in particular falling victim to cooler waters or stronger jet stream winds.

But that did not happen with Hurricanes Laura or Ida in 2020 and 2021—or with Hurricane Michael which ramped all the way up to a Category 5 storm in the Florida Panhandle in 2018.

This technology may also be able to improve understanding of these weather phenomena.

Goose Island State Park, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zoom in: The funding will be used for a radar-outfitted C-130 research aircraft operated jointly by NSF and NCAR.

NCAR director Everette Joseph said the radar should be ready for use in 2028.

In addition to the NCAR research radar, NOAA is planning to buy a new fleet of C-130 hurricane hunters and outfit them with APAR units. It aims to have them flying in 2030.

The NSF investment does not cover NOAA’s new equipment though the oceans and atmosphere agency would benefit from NCAR’s research insights.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between the lines: In selecting NCAR for the funding and research, the NSF is following a long-established model with the Boulder, Colorado-based organization.

The partnership has helped advance weather and climate forecasting for decades.

However, NCAR has hit turbulence recently. Last week, NCAR and NSF announced a temporary suspension of flight operations at its research aviation facility at Rocky Mountain Municipal Airport which would be integrally involved in the APAR project.

An NSF spokesperson told Axios the reason for the stand-down was the “discovery of several lapses related to the safety management systems” at the facility.

“NCAR has done an initial analysis and does not expect any impacts on APAR from the safety stand-down at this time,” the spokesperson said.

Currently, a third-party review is taking place “to review NCAR’s aviation processes, culture, communication, and organizational structure,” the NSF said, projecting a return to full flight operations in the fall.

NCAR and the related University Corporation for Atmospheric Research are also trying to find more pilots in the wake of pandemic-related shutdowns and retirements, NSF stated.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What they’re saying: APAR has been a priority for storm researchers and forecasters for years but is only now poised for flight.

Scott Rayder, a former NOAA chief of staff who now leads Leidos’ climate, energy, and environment activities said such technological leaps should not take so long given that lives are at stake with severe storms.

“When I first heard about the technology in 2012 I knew APAR would be a game changer,” Rayder told Axios. “The fact that it took 10 years to get to this decision is a concern—we need to find ways to more rapidly develop technologies like APAR and move them into operations.”

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Stay safe out there!

Worth Pondering…

In reality, you don’t ever change the hurricane. You just learn how to stay out of its path.     

—Jodi Picoult