Interview with Frank Marks, director of NOAA Hurricane Research Division

For six months of the year, from June 1 through Nov. 30, U.S. coasts from Miami to Honolulu are vulnerable to the ravages of hurricanes. And any given hurricane season can be as unpredictable as an individual storm.

Frank Marks, director of NOAA Hurricane Research Division, Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, Miami.

Frank Marks, director of NOAA Hurricane Research Division, Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, Miami.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

While forecasters use the best technology available to monitor storm tracks and issue warnings, NOAA researchers are working hard to improve forecasting tools. The ultimate goal is to protect life and property along the coasts by giving coastal residents the information they need to be prepared. Radar and satellite data are critical to hurricane researchers, but are no substitute for the data they can collect by flying specially equipped planes directly into a storm.

In the following interview, NOAA scientist Frank Marks discusses the various ways he has studied hurricanes throughout his 30-year NOAA career – including numerous flights through these monster storms.

Why is your research important?

Hurricanes are a major, dangerous weather event and a disrupter to both man and the environment. My research is important because there is a dramatic need to improve forecasts of changes in a hurricane’s track, intensity, structure and their impacts. In order to improve forecasts, we need to better understand the atmospheric and oceanic processes that affect these characteristics of hurricanes.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

At first I was intrigued by the science of weather forecasting. I was mainly focused on the science of understanding how hurricanes work, flying into storms, collecting observations and analyzing the results.

Now I am more interested in applying my knowledge toward the broader implications of our ability to help people in the community prepare for hurricanes through the most accurate and clearest information possible about a storm and its anticipated impacts.

I also enjoy mentoring the next generation of scientists as many others mentored me when I was a young scientist.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

I work in both the field and the office. However, one of the more enjoyable parts of my scientific career has been being involved in field work.

My field experience started when I was a graduate student witnessing the excitement of success as well as the challenges mounting a major field program when I participated in the Global Atmospheric Research Program  Atlantic Tropical Experiment. I followed that up when I joined NOAA by participating in NOAA’s annual airborne research missions into hurricanes.

I feel very lucky today to be one of the few people in the world to regularly fly into hurricanes. The ability to do field work has made the job of being a scientist easier because it keeps you connected to the science and allows you to experience something that is awe inspiring. It’s the part of the job that really makes it worth it.

What is it like to fly through a hurricane?

I have been flying into hurricanes for 30 years and have flown in and out of the eye (we call this a penetration) over 450 times, from storms as weak as Gabrielle (2001) to ones as strong as Andrew (1992) or Hugo (1989). Each flight is about nine to 10 hours in duration with four to six penetrations per mission (one had as many as 12).

The most beautiful experience is breaking into a clear eye after flying in clouds for most of a mission. Unfortunately, not all eyes are clear. The vast majority of those flights are no worse than a commercial flight, but the rest would be considered by most people to be quite scary (I contend that it is more dangerous driving to the plane for a mission).

The worst by far was a mission into Hugo (1989) when we penetrated the eye at 1,200 feet and encountered 170 mph winds and severe turbulence. If that was not bad enough, we also had to shut down one of our four engines. The result was we circled in the eye for about an hour cleaning up the plane and gaining altitude before limping back to base.

What in your lab could you not live without?

Except for a computer, I would say it’s the people. Computers are a vital part of what we do, but it’s the least enjoyable entity to sit in front of every day. I much prefer interactions with people in meetings and discussions — the people make the job. I’ve been blessed with great colleagues and collaborators all over the world and I couldn’t live without that human element.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

A geostationary Doppler radar.  My expertise is in Doppler radar, and I’ve been instrumental in getting this radar on the NOAA hurricane aircraft to study hurricanes. But this data is only collected over one percent of the hurricane lifecycle globally. Continuous monitoring via a space-based Doppler radar would solve that.

I recently started a collaboration with my NASA and university colleagues to put together a plan for just such an instrument we call “NEXRAD in Space.” The antenna technology required to produce a small enough beam on the earth surface from 23,000 miles up is not quite ready yet, but hopefully before the end of my career I will actually see that instrument flying. 

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

As a kid I was interested in science and had a high aptitude for math. In junior high I delivered newspapers and I noticed one of my neighbors had a number of meteorological instruments in his yard. It turned out he was a science teacher at the local high school.

During the next five years I learned how to take observations of the atmosphere, plot the observations on a map with other data collected around the country, analyze the observations, and use them to make forecasts of the local weather.

My passion continued into college as a meteorology major and my attention shifted to why the weather behaved the way it did, deciding to continue my education by getting a graduate degree. My research experience while in graduate school led me to focus on hurricane research.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene.  Greene, a cosmologist, masterfully weaves the reader through the history of physics from Aristotle to the modern theories behind quantum physics and cosmology in a very clear and entertaining manner, demonstrating how the scientific method has led us to more unified scientific concepts.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

Being a manager of a scientific research organization. As a member of a team, you are faced with a number of issues, some that you can deal with and some that you pass on. I was always comfortable doing my own thing and abdicating responsibility to others. Now I am in charge, dealing with these issues that others pass on. At the same time I enjoy being in the position of generating new ideas and providing scientific direction.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Isaac Newton. He is credited with calculus and gravity but many don’t know that he was a great empiricist in the way he approached problems. He applied his knowledge to everyday needs — thinking outside the box.

Frank has been director of the Hurricane Research Division of the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami since 2003. He joined NOAA in 1980. He has won several awards for his research including the Department of Commerce Gold Medal presented as a group award for the Hurricane Research Division’s performance during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  He received a Department of Commerce Silver Medal for performance as the Research Mission Manager for the NOAA High Altitude Jet procurement in 1997,  was NOAA Research Employee of the Year in 2008, and received a NOAA Distinguished Career Award in 2010. NOAA logo.