New tech sails into uncharted hurricane territory. Here’s how it works

Data helps better forecast hurricanes

ORLANDO, Fla. – There is a crucial layer within a hurricane, just above the surface that could hold the key to better understanding and forecasting storms. But a new technology is now making it possible to venture into uncharted hurricane territory.

This zone where the storms meet the ocean is called the boundary layer, which happens to be one of the most important areas in a hurricane.

“The ocean is the energy source for hurricanes. The heat energy from the ocean is transferred into the atmosphere in that boundary layer and that fuels hurricane intensification.” explained Greg Foltz, an oceanographer and hurricane researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Oceanographic and meteorological laboratory.

But this zone is also the least understood due to its hostile environment to human life — until now thanks to Saildrones.

Saildrones are uncrewed sail boats powered by wind and solar energy, that have the capabilities to explore areas of a hurricane never seen before.

“We outfit them with a very advanced set of sensors, atmospheric and oceanographic sensors to help collect the data” said Matt Womble, director of Ocean Data Programs at Saildrone.

He continued on to explain the process of how they intercept tropical systems.

“They are staged in areas where we expect to see hurricanes moving through. And as we begin to see those storms form later this summer, we will get instructions from NOAA on where to move the vehicles to try and best position them to be more or less in the path of those storms” Womble explained.

Once the Saildrones are in position and successfully intercept a hurricane, a stream of real-time data from the observation sensors are relayed back for forecasting.

“The data goes in real time into forecasting centers available for hurricane forecast models, integrated them around the world. And from there it can improve the initial conditions, and hopefully improve the prediction of hurricane intensity in these models.” Foltz said.

Along with numerical data, live video feed of the hostile environment is also recorded, giving researchers a complete visual of the monster storms at ocean surface level.

Partnerships between NOAA and Saildrone has resulted in many successes in the last two years of work, intercepting two major hurricanes. The first was Hurricane Sam in 2021 and Fiona in 2022, both major hurricanes in the Atlantic.

New this season, Saildrone and NOAA will be increasing the number of Saildrones from seven to 12. They will be launched into the Gulf, Caribbean and Atlantic ahead of the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season. One of those 12 will be on standby in St. Petersburg, Florida, to be able to rapidly deploy ahead of a landfalling storm to better analyzing rapid intensification.

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About the Author:

Candace joined the News 6 team as the weekend morning meteorologist and reporter. She comes to Central Florida from Miami.