It’s the Season for High Science

Hurricanes on both coasts are test beds for new forecasting tools


NASA’s unmanned aircraft Global Hawk took this image of a low-pressure system.

NASA’s unmanned aircraft Global Hawk took this image of a low-pressure system (formerly Hurricane Frank) over the eastern Pacific on Aug. 28. A joint effort between NOAA and NASA, it was the first-ever unmanned flight over a tropical cyclone.

High resolution (Credit: NASA/NOAA)

If Mother Nature is a grand scientist, then hurricanes are her swirling laboratories in the sky.

These data-rich storm systems could hold the keys to better understanding severe weather, notably hurricane formation and intensity.

NOAA and NASA scientists sought to do just that on Aug. 28 when they conducted the first-ever, high-altitude flyover of a tropical cyclone by an unmanned aircraft system, NASA’s Global Hawk.

The Global Hawk flew a 13-hour mission from Edwards Air Force Base in California to the Eastern Pacific basin, flying high over the low pressure system that was Hurricane Frank just a couple of days before.

NOAA and NASA shared the mission scientist role to advise the Global Hawk pilots — who operate the aircraft remotely from Edwards AFB — of the real-time aircraft track changes and conditions expected for its flying altitude of about 60,000 feet.

The mission scientists used a combination of NOAA and NASA real-time satellite products, superimposed with past, current and future positions of the Global Hawk, to decide where it should head to obtain the best possible data without placing the plane at risk of turbulence or other undesirable conditions for data collection.

Global Hawk

The Global Hawk can fly autonomously to altitudes above 60,000 feet -- roughly twice as high as a commercial airliner -- and as far as 11,000 nautical miles. Operators pre-program a flight path, and then the plane flies itself for as long as 30 hours.

High resolution (Credit: NASA)

NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) is conducting this research to better understand how hurricanes intensify — or get stronger — in a field study called IFEX. The study will not only incorporate data collected by the Global Hawk, but also by NOAA’s P-3 and G-IV “Hurricane Hunter” airplanes.

IFEX is being coordinated with two other federal research efforts. The National Science Foundation-sponsored PREDICT study and NASA’s GRIP mission also seek to further understand how hurricanes gain their strength and destructive power.

The Global Hawk is also testing a number of data-gathering instruments. All of the remote-sensing instruments onboard the aircraft performed well, including a high-definition camera that identified targets and provided detailed photos of cloud structures in a wide swath ahead of and beneath the plane. [Click here to learn more.]

Based on the Global Hawk’s first experience in a weak tropical system, NOAA and NASA are confident that the unmanned aircraft is ready to pursue more formidable targets, such as  Hurricane Earl as it churns northward in the Atlantic.

You can learn about future Global Hawk flights by visiting the NOAA Hurricane Research Division’s blog.

Forecasting the Flood Before the Storm

Flooding is often a serious byproduct of land-falling hurricanes, imperiling lives and destroying property and infrastructure.

There has not been a central clearinghouse for data gathered by atmospheric, river, and ocean modeling systems that might help forecasters predict the individual elements of a coastal storm, such as rain estimates, ocean waves, tidal fluctuations, storm surge and river flows.

Now, a new NOAA forecasting tool known as CI-FLOW (Coastal and Inland-Flooding Observation and Warning Project) is seeking to change that. [Check out this cool CI-FLOW video on YouTube.]

CI-FLOW is based on a prototype system that will seamlessly integrate these different modeling systems to produce flood predictions for its first test case: coastal North Carolina during the present hurricane season.

NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory is leading the interdisciplinary multi-institutional team of CI-FLOW researchers from partners such as the University of Oklahoma; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas Sea Grant programs; operational National Weather Service forecasters; and the Centers for Ocean Sciences Educational Excellence Southeast.

You can learn more about CI-FLOW by visiting

Posted Sept. 1, 2010 NOAA logo.