How hurricane hunters play crucial role in forecasting storms

Forecasters collect critical data to predict storm strength, path

By Samara Cokinos - Meteorologist, Troy Bridges - Meteorologist

ORLANDO, Fla. - Imagine flying into the eye of a hurricane. Not your cup of tea? Don't worry, there's a team for that.

For scientists on board the hurricane hunter aircraft, it's not just a thrilling ride, but it's a necessity for meteorologists to determine what's going on inside a tropical system.

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Hurricane Hunters.

Although these WP-3D planes have cute names, like Kermit and Miss Piggy, the 73,000-pound hurricane hunters are packed with state of the art equipment, taking samples of their surroundings using the only flying Doppler Radar and an instrument known as a dropsonde. The little tube is equipped with a parachute and global positioning system technology, and it brings a lot of data back to the plane while falling thousands of feet through rocky conditions.

"Every time we go through the eye wall, we will drop one of these to collect the wind measurements, dew point, temperature, wind speed and direction and pressure," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aerospace engineer Nick Underwood said.

Dropsonde instrument used by Hurricane Hunters.

The mini weather station reports its position every half-second as it drifts through the storm, eventually falling into the ocean.

The information gathered not only describes the storm, but combined with advances made in forecasting tools, that data helps make the track and intensity forecast more and more accurate.

A prime example of the importance of improving forecasts could be seen during Hurricane Michael.

Michael rapidly intensified from a tropical storm Oct. 8 to a major hurricane by the night of Oct. 9.

NOAA pilot Lt. Cmdr. Adam Abitbol said his crew's plane was the last one in the storm before it made landfall.

"That data was critical and very nearly identifying the track home and helped those folks prepare at the last minute," Abitbol said.

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Michael was the first major Category 5 hurricane to strike the contiguous United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Rapid intensification is a process that still has a lot of gray areas.

"Oh, that’s one of the big research points out right now," Abitbol said. "Trying to figure out what the genesis of that RI, how fast it evolves, the track and the intensity itself."

This information is crucial in saving lives. The data gathered from Michael could narrow the scope to understand the complex process behind rapid intensification. That way, meteorologists can have the knowledge on how these extreme storms are spawned so warnings and preparations can go out even earlier.

Luckily, we have the team of hurricane hunters ready to fly through some of the strongest storms on Earth. For them, it's just another day at the office.

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