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

Hurricane Season: Staying Safe in your RV

Your safety and the safety of your family is most important, so develop a hurricane preparedness plan before a hurricane strikes

Stormy conditions appear to be on the horizon for the 2020 hurricane season with government forecasters announcing the possibility of an “extremely active” period. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in its pre-season outlook there’s a 60 percent chance of an above-normal hurricane season which officially starts June 1 and runs until November 30.

Rokport-Fulton, Texas following Hurricane Harvey, a Cat 4 hurricane (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NOAA forecasters are calling for 13 to 19 named storms with winds of 39 mph or higher; of those, six to 10 could become hurricanes. Among those hurricanes, three to six will be major, classified as Category 3, 4, and 5 with winds of 111 mph or higher.

Rokport-Fulton, Texas following Hurricane Harvey, a Cat 4 hurricane (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With hurricane season officially upon us, it’s important to know the ins and outs of RV safety—when to ride out a tropical storm and when it’s time to head out of Dodge to a safer locale. Motorhomes and travel trailers are ideal ‘survival’ vehicles during natural disasters. When faced with a possible hurricane, your recreational vehicle can transport you, your loved ones, and your home to a safer place.

Goose Island State Park, Texas following Hurricane Harvey, a Cat 4 hurricane (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s what you need to know.

Hurricane season is no joke. The devastating power of these twisting tropical storms is humbling—and it can change your life, or even end it, in a second. That’s why folks who live near the coastal areas most vulnerable to hurricanes carefully track each storm over the course of the season, even the small ones. It might just end up being a tropical depression that spins off harmlessly into the ocean… but you just can’t be too careful when dealing with nature’s fury.

Goose Island State Park, Texas following Hurricane Harvey, a Cat 4 hurricane (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, that goes double, if not triple, for those of us who live or travel in a recreational vehicle. We’ll cut right to the chase: no matter what kind of rig you call home, an RV is not a safe place to ride out a hurricane. In fact, even tropical storms and smaller thunderstorms can cause serious and life-threatening damage to your home-on-wheels.

The Big Tree at Goose Island State Park, Texas stood firm during Hurricane Harvey, a Cat 4 hurricane (August 25, 2017). Your RV would not be this fortunate. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature’s fury has a knack of catching you off-guard; hurricanes are no exceptions. Hurricanes pack enough punch to destroy everything in their wake and in those times it is best to be prepared for an immediate evacuation. Tropical storms and hurricanes are unpredictable to a large extent and must not be treated lightly. Your RV can become your best friend and your ticket to safety if you take certain safety measures for yourself and your vehicle.

Fortunately this was not a major storm approaching Capitol City RV Park in Montgomery, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you’re traveling by RV, the weather takes on a whole new level of importance. Motorhomes and travel trailers are not safe places to take shelter during extreme weather events which means it’s critical to stay up to date and alert about changing weather patterns and potential severe weather warnings in your area. It’s not melodramatic to say that your life and the lives of your family could hang in the balance.

Sunrise RV Park in Texarkana, Arkansas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, the same feature that makes RVs an unsafe place to weather a storm makes it relatively easy to avoid bad weather in the first place: they’re on wheels! Evacuation is the key to surviving a hurricane in an RV. It may actually take days to reach a safe destination. In addition, the path of the storm may change requiring you to change directions.

Eagles Landing RV Park, Auburn, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t wait too long and get stuck in heavy traffic with last minute, mandatory evacuees. As soon as you know a hurricane is likely to come your way, load up your RV and head out before the Interstate becomes a virtual parking lot.

Tom Sawyer RV Park, West Memphis, Arkansas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prepare an emergency kit by stocking your RV with items such as water, non-perishable foods, and prescription medications. Before the storm, fill your vehicle with fuel and check the windshield wipers and tires. Place your RV and house insurance documents, vehicle registration, title, passport, and other important documents in a waterproof bag and keep them with you.

Buckhorn RV Resort, Kerrville, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep handy items such as tarps, flashlights and extra batteries, candles and extra lighters or waterproof matches, disposable garbage bags, NOAA Weather Radio, first aid kit, and a toolkit ready at all times.

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

Arrival of Summer: On Dehydration, Hurricane Season & RVs

Many summer deaths are caused by dehydration especially during heat waves

With the official start to summer looming the prospect of becoming dehydrated is an ever-present danger. Dehydration occurs when you use or lose more fluid than you take in and your body doesn’t have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal functions, according to Mayo Clinic. If you don’t replace lost fluids, you will get dehydrated.

Folly Beach, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anyone may become dehydrated but the condition is especially dangerous for young children and older adults. Older adults naturally have a lower volume of water in their bodies and may have conditions or take medications that increase the risk of dehydration.

This is your friendly reminder to drink some water. Go fill up your water bottle, I’ll wait. 

Good? 

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alright, let’s get after it.

The arrival of summer also means the beginning of hurricane season and experts think it’s going to be a doozy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center shows a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30.

Storm damage at Rockport from Hurricane Harvey (August 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher) of which six to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher) including three to six major hurricanes (category 3, 4, or 5; winds of 111 mph or higher). NOAA provides these ranges with a 70 percent confidence. An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms of which six become hurricanes including three major hurricanes.

Storm damage at Fulton from Hurricane Harvey (August 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But that’s not the most alarming hurricane-related news you’ll read this month. On June 1, a Texas Rep. introduced a bill to Congress that would “prohibit the President from deploying any strategic weapon such as a nuclear bomb for purposes of altering weather patterns or addressing climate change and for other purposes.”

What??

Storm damage at Goose Island State Park from Hurricane Harvey (August 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As crazy as it sounds, scientists and world leaders have considered using nuclear bombs as hurricane disruptors for decades. Indeed, the idea of nuking the weather into submission is nothing new: According to James Fleming, a professor at Colby College and author of “Fixing the Sky: The checkered history of weather and climate control,” people have been discussing the possibility for almost as long as nuclear weapons have existed.

Storm damage at Goose Island State Park from Hurricane Harvey (August 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In October 1945, Vladimir Zworykin, associate research director at Radio Corporation of America, suggested that if humans had technology to perfectly predict the weather, military forces could be sent out to disrupt storms before they formed perhaps using atomic bombs. That same year, UNESCO director Julian Huxley spoke at an arms control conference in Manhattan where he discussed using nuclear weapons for “landscaping the Earth” or dissolving the polar ice cap. In a 1961 speech at the National Press Club, U.S. Weather Bureau head Francis Reichelderfer said he could “imagine the possibility someday of exploding a nuclear bomb on a hurricane far at sea,” according to a 2016 report by National Geographic.

The Big Tree at Goose Island State Park following Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s been enough conversation around nuking hurricanes that the NOAA felt compelled to address it on its FAQ page.

The agency’s take: “Needless to say, this is not a good idea.”

Storm damage at Goose Island State Park from Hurricane Harvey (August 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

+ Go deeper: National Geographic wrote a great history of nukes and hurricanes. If you are really interested in the topic, read “Fixing the Sky” that charts humanity’s attempts to control the weather through engineering. 

Storm damage at Goose Island State Park from Hurricane Harvey (August 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you’re traveling by RV, the weather takes on a whole new level of importance. Motorhomes and travel trailers are not safe places to take shelter during extreme weather events which means it’s critical to stay up to date and alert about changing weather patterns and potential severe weather warnings in your area. It’s not melodramatic to say that your life and the lives of your family could hang in the balance.

Know when it’s time to leave Dodge (Botany Bay on Edisto Island, South Carolina) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, the same feature that makes RVs an unsafe place to weather a storm makes it relatively easy to avoid bad weather in the first place: they’re on wheels!

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jodi Picoult