NASA to get a GRIP on hurricane formation

NASA’s Hurricane Global Hawk Grail Quest

In less than two weeks, NASA scientists will begin their quest for the holy grail of hurricane research.

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NASA scientists are readying to begin an intense, six-week research investigation into how hurricanes – like Isabel in 2003, pictured here – form and how the often rapidly intensify. This hurricane image was captured on Sept. 14, 2003 by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument onboard NASA’s Aqua satellite. Image credit: NASA

The exact conditions required to kickstart a tropical depression into a hurricane largely remain a mystery. Though scientists know many of the ingredients needed, it is unclear what processes ultimately drive depressions to form into the intense, spinning storms that lash the U.S. coasts each summer.

“Hurricane formation and intensification is really the ‘holy grail’ of this field,” said Ed Zipser, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah and one of three program scientists helping to lead the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) experiment this summer.

With GRIP, NASA’s first domestic hurricane project since 2001, the agency has assembled the largest-ever hurricane research experiment to investigate these questions. Three NASA planes, multiple NASA satellites and four planes from research partners NOAA and NSF will combine to make unprecedented measurements of tropical storms as they are forming (or dying out) and intensifying (or weakening). The intense scientific focus on these meteorological processes could provide new insight into the fundamental physics of hurricanes and ultimately improve our ability to forecast the strength of a storm at landfall. Predictions of hurricane strength continue to lag behind the accuracy of storm track predictions, but accurate predictions of both are needed for the best possible preparation before landfall.

With each aircraft outfitted with multiple instruments, scientists will be taking a closer look at hurricanes with hopes of gaining insight into which physical processes or large-scale environmental factors are the key triggers in hurricane formation and intensification.

NASA's Global Hawk unmanned drone, based at Dryden Flight Research Center in California, will provide unprecedented, sustained observations of the formation and strengthening of tropical cyclones during this summer's GRIP campaign.

NASA's Global Hawk unmanned drone, based at Dryden Flight Research Center in California, will provide unprecedented, sustained observations of the formation and strengthening of tropical cyclones during this summer's GRIP campaign. Until now, manned flights have only been able to capture two to fours of data over a storm at a time. The Global Hawk will be able to make up to 20 consecutive hours of measurements. Credit: NASA/Dryden/Carla Thomas

The GRIP fleet includes NASA’s Global Hawk, the unmanned drone built by Northrop Grumman and also used by the U.S. Air Force, WB-57 and DC-8. The NASA aircraft will be deployed from Florida (DC-8), Texas (WB-57) and California (Global Hawk) and will fly at varying altitudes over tropical storms in an attempt to capture them at different stages of development.

“One of the potential data-gathering breakthroughs of GRIP could be to continuously observe a tropical storm or hurricane for 24 hours straight, by including aircraft from all three agencies,” said GRIP Project Manager Marilyn Vasques. The Global Hawk alone could fly continuously over a storm system for up to 16 hours.

Gerry Heymsfield (pushing cart) and Lihua Li prepare to integrate the HIWRAP instrument on NASA’s GlobalHawk this week in advance of the (GRIP) hurricane experiment.

Gerry Heymsfield (pushing cart) and Lihua Li prepare to integrate the High-Altitude Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Profiler (HIWRAP) instrument on NASA’s GlobalHawk this week in advance of the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) hurricane experiment. Heymsfield is a GRIP project scientist and HIWRAP principal investigator; Li is a Goddard Space Flight Center engineer. The Global Hawk’s extended flight range will allow scientists to make continuous measurements over changing tropical storms and hurricanes of an unprecedented length. Image courtesy NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. Image credit: NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center

While geostationary satellites used for forecasting can observe the basic movement of a storm across the Atlantic, these aircraft instruments will be able to “see” below the cloud-tops and uncover what is happening in the internal structure of the storm.

“That’s what makes this really unique, the ability to observe one of these storms up close as it changes over its life-cycle. Before we’ve only been able to get a few hours of data at a time,” Vasques said. “We want to see storms that become hurricanes, and we want to see some that don’t become hurricanes, so we can compare the data. The same is true for hurricane intensification.”

“When you think of analyzing it later, we want to break down what the temperatures were, what the winds were doing, what the aerosol concentration was, to see if we can start detecting a pattern,” Vasques said.

The variety and number of instruments will allow scientists to investigate multiple science questions at once: What role does dust from the Sahara play in hurricane formation? Can lightning be used as a predictor of a storm’s change in intensity? Do widespread environmental conditions such as humidity, temperature, precipitation and clouds lead to cyclone formation, or are smaller-scale interactions between some of these same elements the cause?

Scientists at NASA and the many academic and government research partners in GRIP are excited to put several new state-of-the-art hurricane observing instruments in the field. A powerful microwave radiometer and a radar will provide insight into the massive “hot towers” of convection found in cyclones, and a NASA-designed and –built lidar (laser radar) will provide the first-ever measurements of wind speed in three dimensions – not just east, west, north and south, but also vertically.

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These instrument advancements, in addition to the deployment of the Global Hawk in a major Earth science campaign for the first time, have NASA scientists anxious to take to the field.

“This is one of the most exciting points in my career,” said Ramesh Kakar, GRIP program manager and lead of NASA’s recently formed Hurricane Science Research Team. “Satellites can only get a brief glimpse of what is happening inside a hurricane, and we get very excited about seeing that. Now imagine if you could watch a storm unfold for 20 hours.”

The ability to keep an eye on developing storms for that length of time will largely depend on a complex deployment of the various planes, from different locations, at different times and at different altitudes. The NASA planes have different flight ranges, with the DC-8 able to fly for eight hours, the WB-57 four hours and the Global Hawk 30 hours. Those flight ranges include the time required to get to the storm and back to home base.

“In general, when the aircraft are deployed to study potentially developing hurricanes, they will fly a basic grid pattern over the weather system,” Zipser said. ‘Ideally this pattern will be repeated on consecutive days. Once planes are flying over an established hurricane, they’ll fly repeatedly over the eye of the storm and covering its breadth, creating somewhat of an asterisk pattern centered on the eye. Flights on consecutive days will deliver the best cache of data on how the storm changed over time.”

Flights begin Aug. 15 and will last until Sept. 25.

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36 thoughts on “NASA to get a GRIP on hurricane formation

  1. Amazing…Real science!

    We can tell you what the climate will be like in 50-100 years from now.

    But we don’t even know how hurricanes form yet.

    It’s unbelievable really, when you stop to think about it.

  2. If this recording is genuine ; what is interesting is the Chinese perspective that the industrialised nations of the world are responsible for 80% of the anthropogenic CO2 in the last 200yrs and…”whoever created this problem is responsible for the catastrophe we are facing”.

    It seems the Chinese accept the possibility of a ‘C’ in CAGW.

  3. 6 Weeks later the results will be that more research is needed to understand what they discovered so we need to spend more money so they can claim smaller storms as being bigger than life. When the latest news is about a depression with 35 mile an hour winds that MIGHT strengthen to 39 MPH in the next 48 hrs. The season is really ramping up!

  4. Why do more research? They already know that CO2 is causing hurricanes, don’t they?
    (I won’t haarp on this point, however.)

  5. That’s a really beautiful picture of the perfect structure of Isabel. She looks so much like a galaxy that Nasa probably feared for a minute that the Aqua satellite had turned upside down.

  6. “The intense scientific focus on these meteorological processes could provide new insight into the fundamental physics of hurricanes and ultimately improve our ability to forecast the strength of a storm at landfall. Predictions of hurricane strength continue to lag behind the accuracy of storm track predictions, but accurate predictions of both are needed for the best possible preparation before landfall.”

    As anyone who lives in hurricane areas knows you prepare for the worse and hope for the best. In my book there is no such thing as over-preparing for an approaching hurricane. Storm track is the most valuable info for me. That tells me when I need to do certain things. A possibility of sustained winds over 65 mph and I will board up the windows so it really doesn’t matter if they predict a Cat 1 or higher storm. So to what end will this additional information be used? Dumb asses who believe being under prepared is some badge of honor will still be dumb asses and put themselves at risk. Most of the rest of us will continue to be ready for anything no matter what this new information provides.

  7. Last year the NSF and others set up an “$11.9 million VORTEX2 program” from May 10 to June 13 to study tornados. http://www.vortex2.org/home/
    The atmosphere did not cooperate.
    “VORTEX2 was designed to take advantage of the climatological peak of tornado season, which is from mid-May to early June, yet tornadoes were hard to come by during that period…”
    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/capitalweathergang/2009/06/meteorologist_patrick_marsh_hu.html

    Hope the GRIP folks get better cooperation from Mother Earth than the VORTEX2 researchers did.

    Nope!
    http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/ Keep looking:

  8. Fine, but I fail to see how this accomplishes NASA’s primary goal of making muslim countries feel better about their scientific achievements.

  9. This is a joke right?
    “Predictions of hurricane strength continue to lag behind the accuracy of storm track predictions”

    That must mean predictions of strength are non existent.

    On any given storm, they have the three day cone of death from New York to Rio.

  10. Global Hawk first flew in Feb 98. Proof of concept, to wit: the ability to conduct long duration high altitude reconnaissance using various sensors, accept dynamic mission change in flight, communicate directly with end users of the information gathered and recover at any of thousands of airfields, was demonstrated in May 2000. NOAA has finally stumbled across the obvious: Global Hawk is the perfect vehicle for storm reconnaissance. Why are they still flying 60-year old airplanes?

  11. I suspect the goal is to prove man made global warming. If this is truely for science then good, but I doubt it.
    As for China, perhaps we should put them back to where they were before they got all our technology and procedures and equipment to save them from doing something awful like we have done in Western civilization.

  12. I have often presented my observations of electric weather to other lists.

    NASA has decided their mechanical model of hurricanes is not adequate. “The exact conditions required to kickstart a tropical depression into a hurricane largely remain a mystery. Though scientists know many of the ingredients needed, it is unclear what processes ultimately drive depressions to form into the intense, spinning storms that lash the U.S. coasts each summer.”

    I can tell them right now the answer lies in electrical effects. These electrical effects can originate from solar, geomagnetic, and even causes from beyond the solar system.

    The same process that causes thunderstorms to simultaneously break out over an entire continent also causes hurricanes to suddenly break out and gain strength.

  13. DonS says:
    August 11, 2010 at 7:12 am

    ….. NOAA has finally stumbled across the obvious: Global Hawk is the perfect vehicle for storm reconnaissance. Why are they still flying 60-year old airplanes?
    ___________________________________________________________
    They still flying 60-year old airplanes because all of our tax dollars are being spent on CAGW propaganda. WWF is funded by our tax dollars to the tune of 20% of the total.
    http://www.undueinfluence.com/wwf.htm

  14. NASA can never be even within 50% accuracy of prediction information. They don’t have the collective intelligence or backbone to mack accurate predictions. I predicted zero hurricanes hitting the US last year and was 100% accurate. I even put my money where my mouth was and went naked in home insurance and saved myself 2 grand. Same this year.

  15. DonS – I assume it’s a payload & altitude issue.
    Global Hawk, 900kg/2,000lbs to max of 20,000m/65,000ft
    DC8, 60-100,000kg to 40,000ft (?)
    WB57, 6,000lbs to “well over 60,000ft”

  16. From the first paragraph:

    “Though scientists know many of the ingredients needed, it is unclear what processes ultimately drive depressions to form into the intense, spinning storms that lash the U.S. coasts each summer.”

    Umm…has the word “each” been redefined somehow to exclude 2006 and 2007?

  17. Tim Williams says:
    August 11, 2010 at 4:40 am

    If this recording is genuine ; what is interesting is the Chinese perspective that the industrialised nations of the world are responsible for 80% of the anthropogenic CO2 in the last 200yrs and…”whoever created this problem is responsible for the catastrophe we are facing”.

    It seems the Chinese accept the possibility of a ‘C’ in CAGW.

    Either that, or they’re trying to make the burden so costly for the West that nothing gets done and they don’t have to spend even 20%. (If they wanted to avoid spending anything, the tack they’re taking would be the way to do it.)

  18. They can save themselves a lot of time and effort by just asking the GCM’s of Delphi, they are never wrong after you feed them some known starting conditions. Look how well they have worked with CO2 induced temperature rise.

  19. Good news regarding the hurricane season – “Flights begin Aug. 15 and will last until Sept. 25”

    ‘A watched kettle never boils’, so here’s hoping Project GRIP will have the same effect!

  20. Isn’t the NWS supposed to be doing that? Are we duplicating government efforts thus wasting tax payer money? Or is NASA just fishing for SOMETHING it can be good at? So far, it is my guess that they will over-rate the current strength of hurricanes and underrate past hurricanes, causing local governments to spend needlessly on preparations not needed. I am sure, just really sure, that data on hurricanes will be adjusted and homogenized to show whatever it needs to show so that NASA can state how vital they are to humans.

  21. Obviously we need a whole lot more hurricanes to cool the oceans down a bit.

    Mother Gaia really knows how to build an air conditioning system; and of course Homo Non-Sapiens continues to build flimsy structures right where MG has her apparatus set up.

    And we think that Intelligence is some super survival trait ! The termites will really enjoy the planet after we have quit fiddling with it.

  22. So we don’t know why the conservation of angular momentum works like it is supposed to; but we do know how high clouds warm the surface; and the higher; the warmer.
    We are so fortunate to be getting the scientific return that we are paying Billions and Billions of Taxpayer funded Dollars for.

  23. Enneagram says:
    August 11, 2010 at 7:46 am

    As I said elsewhere, it’s a very eclectic site and well worth a visit.

    Pointman

  24. Oooh, WB-57! Talk about an antique.

    The WB-57 started out as a poor man’s U-2, one that didn’t need a specialized ground crew to assist in landing. Back in the 60’s they rebuilt a 1950’s era Canberra bomber, stretching the wings to ridiculous lengths, swapping in a big pair of B-52H turbofan engines, and then tacking on an extra pair of straight turbojets for good measure.

    Back in my cadet days I got to crawl around one and talk to the pilot. Well above 60,000 ft means really well above. I watched the pilot take off, and when the sagging wings started to lift, the plane launched, looking like it was going straight up.

    And they’re still flying.

  25. You know? I’m really surprised that nobody has addressed just this point: The potential difference between the upper and lower atmospheres which affords such action as happens with cyclonic weather disturbances.

    Maybe someone should be checking the sea surface temperatures right along with the upper atmospheric temps?

    Point: Most hurricanes tend to lose their power/strength over land.

    Is the land cooler or warmer —relatively speaking— than the sea which affords the ability to continue?

    At the same time, what’s the average barometric pressure at the upper atmosphere while all of that is going on?

    In all of this, I get the idea that some people tend to forget that in nature there exists that necessary function of opposites: In order for things to happen, there needs to be a ‘difference of potential.’

  26. Further to my last: Regarding the sea surface temps, there exist the ability to readily ‘surrender’ a larger amount of mass then would a land surface, thereby ‘feeding’ the cyclonic disturbance.

    That would also explain Jupiter’s on-going storm …

  27. Tenuc says:
    August 11, 2010 at 9:52 am

    “”Good news regarding the hurricane season – “Flights begin Aug. 15 and will last until Sept. 25″
    ‘A watched kettle never boils’, so here’s hoping Project GRIP will have the same effect!””
    Reply;
    Oh snap! They ought to extend the cutoff date to at least the end of September, or they will miss the best part of the show, better yet, Mid October to see it all.

  28. WB-57 story, back in my Govn’t contractor days I knew a old WB-57 driver who was
    now a contractor too. He was one of the folks who was sent out to “sniff” the
    radiation cloud from a very surprising Chinese Nuke test.
    “Ah it contained a signature of Ah, human bodies.”
    As in a “Far Side” scenario:”Quan don’t touch that Bu….”
    He liked the WB-57 the Outboard jets were to help with high altitude flight as the
    fans were a bit winded “Above 60,000″…

  29. 899 says:
    August 11, 2010 at 6:20 pm
    “Point: Most hurricanes tend to lose their power/strength over land.
    Is the land cooler or warmer —relatively speaking— than the sea which affords the ability to continue?”

    I am confused by much of what you have written in the comment but I think I can add something to the part quoted above. Tropical storms and the resulting hurricane (if it develops) gain energy because low pressure and warm temperatures of air and water produce much evaporation. The process involves the concept of “heat of evaporation” which is then contained as latent heat in the water vapor entrained in the storm. As the air rises in the storm and the vapor condenses that “hidden” heat is released and the storm grows. Without a source of energy, that being the deep pool of warm ocean water, the storm weakens. The transition to land or to over cool water is, thusly, very important. So I guess the “opposites” in this case would be a source of energy (warm ocean) or not (cold ocean or land). As an aside, the land in most instances (insofar as this discussion is concerned) would have a higher surface temperature.

  30. Mike McMillan: August 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm
    Oooh, WB-57! Talk about an antique.

    Hey! I’ll have you know I gave a BDA to an Aussie Canberra pilot in…

    Ummmmmmmmm.

    Okay, you’re right.

    *hobbles off grumbling about The Unfairness Of Youth Being Wasted On The Young*

  31. NASA does seem to be steping on NOAA’s toes don’t they? It’s probably high time to chop the NA to NOAA and just keep the SA. Maybe then they’ll get their head out of the clouds and back into the Space Business. The current crew can’t even stay in space past next year – no launch vehicles (they say). Heck, if it weren’t for the good ol’ Air Force, we wouldn’t even have a Space Program. (But aren’t you just so happy that we spent a $Trillion on political kickbacks and bailed out the UAW and NEA and cancelled the new rockets we were building- I mean, THAT’s important;-(

  32. The Land/Ocean heat issue is this: The ocean retains it’s heat long after the sun sets, clouds cover & rain falls. The land, however, cools quickly when the sun sets or clouds gather or rain falls so the energy is lost to drive a tropical cyclone *however*…there have been rare cases where a remnant tropical system regenerated to a minimal tropical storm strength over Oklahoma and over Virginia/North Carolina near the coast.

    Jeff

  33. @ RexAlan says August 11, 2010 at 4:14 am:

    “Amazing…Real science!

    We can tell you what the climate will be like in 50-100 years from now.

    But we don’t even know how hurricanes form yet.”

    I love it. Still laughing…

    .

    .

    .

    Still laughing. . .

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