Planet NOAA Podcast Episode 4: Into the eye of the storm

Are you prepared for hurricane season? Dig into the mechanics of a hurricane, flight and ground meteorology, and what it takes to be a NOAA Hurricane Hunter pilot with Rear Admiral Nancy Hann and special guests.

NOAA Hurricane Hunter flies through the sky.

Audio file


[Planet NOAA theme music plays]

SYMONE BARKLEY (HOST): Welcome back to Planet NOAA. I’m your host, Symone Barkley, and I’m the National Ocean Service Exhibits Manager and an Education Specialist. Here at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, we help the nation understand, prepare for, and mitigate the impacts of dangerous storms. Today, you’ll hear from our weather experts – including one of our courageous Hurricane Hunter pilots – to get an inside look at severe weather in advance of hurricane season. 

HOST: Let’s welcome back Tom DiLiberto, our resident Public Affairs Specialist and Climate Scientist, with the latest NOAA headlines. Tom, it’s finally starting to warm up outside. I read that the National Weather Service, or NWS, just expanded their Experimental HeatRisk Forecast Tool – can you take us through what this nationwide tool is and why it’s important?

DILIBERTO: Sure thing! So, we know that last year was the planet’s warmest year on record. Heat remains the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States, and we’re seeing hotter, longer, and more frequent heatwaves with less overnight relief as time goes on. Now, that’s where the NWS HeatRisk tool comes in. HeatRisk is a first-of-its-kind tool that combines weather, climate, and CDC heat-health data to help people in different areas and local climates understand what forecasted heat means for them. Essentially, it takes the upcoming weather forecast and places it into a broader context of climate to prepare folks for upcoming heat events and their long-term impacts. The HeatRisk tool also helps decision-makers take action when it comes to understanding and issuing heat watches, warnings, and advisories. The HeatRisk tool looks like a pretty traditional weather forecast map. It’s a color-numeric index that forecasts heat-related impacts that may occur over a 24-hour period for each day in the weekly forecast. For example, on a HeatRisk map, you might see a location colored green for 0, or little to no risk for expected heat. Yellow is a 1 on the HeatRisk scale, representing a minor risk on that particular day for individuals that are sensitive to heat, and so on. The difference between this index and a traditional weather forecasting index is that it identifies custom heat risks for specific dates and locations, rather than using one generic standard or heat threshold to analyze multiple locations. HeatRisk also provides actionable information and steps that heat-sensitive folks can take to protect themselves for different types of heat warnings. So it’s more than just a forecast – it’s a service for communities around the nation. As of April, the Experimental HeatRisk Forecast Tool has been made available nationwide by the National Weather Service. 

HOST: Excited to check that tool out. So, these heatwaves don’t just impact people – they impact all kinds of organisms. Can you tell us a bit more about how these impacts are unfolding underwater? 

DILIBERTO: So, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch scientists have found that the globe is currently experiencing its fourth global coral bleaching event. Healthy corals have a symbiotic relationship with a type of algae called zooxanthellae that live inside of their tissues. This algae acts as the primary food source for corals and also gives them their distinctive coloring. When corals are stressed by changes in their environment, like a spike in temperature, they expel the algae, causing them to turn completely white and giving them a bleached appearance. Bleached corals are not dead – but they are under more stress and are more susceptible to disease and mortality without that primary food source. As climate change causes our planet to warm, higher ocean temperatures have become the top cause of coral bleaching, leading to the loss of entire coral reefs. Since last year, unprecedented heatwaves have caused mass bleaching of coral reefs in over 50 nations around the globe, including in the U.S.. Coral reef preservation is really important because around a quarter of all of the ocean’s fish depend on them to find shelter & food, and reproduce & rear their young. Humans interact a lot with coral reefs, too. Corals bear cultural significance for many indigenous people around the world. Plus, reef tourism is a booming industry that supports local businesses and national economies – how many times have you seen an underwater snap of divers or snorkelers exploring coral ecosystems? With this year marking the 4th major coral bleaching event worldwide, economies, livelihoods, and food security are all being placed at risk as a result of climate change. Right now, NOAA is working to combat these impacts through its Mission: Iconic Reefs program, which moves coral nurseries to deeper and cooler waters, sets up sunshades to protect corals from the sun’s heat, and more. But you don’t have to be a scientist to help protect coral reefs and keep our oceans healthy. You can visit to find volunteer and citizen scientist opportunities, whether it’s cleaning up marine debris, taking samples of local waters, or becoming a coastal steward in your community. And any good project starts with learning the basics – so be sure to visit to learn more about the beauty and importance of corals.

HOST: Thanks, Tom. What, no jokes today?

DILIBERTO: It’s not all zooxan-silly, Symone.

HOST: It’s time to test your oceanic & atmospheric trivia knowledge on “Did You NOAA?” with special guest Tara Garwood, who is the communications and multimedia lead for the NOAA Heritage Program.

TARA GARWOOD: Hey Symone – excited to be back! 

HOST: Last episode, we talked a bit about the Super Tornado Outbreak and its impact on NOAA’s forecasting and warning systems. Could you tell us a bit about the origins of these systems?

GARWOOD: Sure! The NOAA Weather Radio network started to take shape in the early 1950s in the form of aviation broadcasts for New York City and Chicago. This initial setup was then  replaced by small stations operating on FAA low and medium-band frequencies to deliver weather warnings to portions of the public. By 1970, just 29 transmitters formed the official NOAA Weather Radio network – which left some gaps in nationwide coverage.

HOST: Shoutout to those emergency alerts I get on my smartphone now. So, how did the National Weather Service and NOAA Weather Radio network end up expanding?

GARWOOD: We’ll be back in a bit with an answer for you, Symone!

HOST: Storms are the great equalizer. They can strike any place at any time – which is why it’s important to be prepared for severe weather events. With National Hurricane Preparedness Week beginning on May 5, we’re turning to the experts to find out how NOAA helps us understand, prepare for, and mitigate the effects of dangerous storms. I’m excited to welcome Jamie Rhome, the Acting Director of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, or NHC. Jamie is both a hurricane and a storm surge specialist, having overseen the National Hurricane Program and NHC’s Storm Surge Unit.

JAMIE RHOME: Thank you so much for having me.

HOST: Joining us is Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Doremus, a Hurricane-qualified aircraft commander on the WP-3D Orion and an instructor pilot on the DHC-6 Twin Otter. He has logged over 4,500 flight hours in NOAA aircraft and has flown through the eye of a hurricane a whopping 179 times.

KEVIN DOREMUS: Thanks for having me. It's good to be here. 

HOST: We’re also joined by Bianca Feldkircher, an Emergency Response Specialist at the NWS Western Region Headquarters. Bianca serves as a liaison between NWS Weather Forecast Offices and federal, state, and regional decision-makers.

BIANCA FELDKIRCHER: Thank you for the great introduction. So happy to be here with you all.

HOST: Tell us a bit about the mechanics of both the hurricane and the storm surge. What are they and how are they related? 

RHOME: Yeah, so, hurricanes are really very much a natural part of a global weather system. So if you sort of step back, their primary purpose or mechanism is to transport heat from the equator towards the poles. And if we didn't have hurricanes, the globe would be very much imbalanced in terms of a heat situation. So the equator would get too warm and it would be very much unbalanced. So, you know, they have a purpose in, in sort of the maintenance of the global weather pattern. The problem comes when they strike land and strike people and impact their lives. People wonder, you know, why can't we stop hurricanes or somehow alter them or weaken them or, you know. That was tried, back in the 60s, with little to no success because they are such a huge part of this global system of weather. But this is why we can't change hurricanes or move them or weaken them. Instead it is our job to predict them on the forecast side; warn about them. And then from a societal perspective, become more resilient to their arrival. The mechanics of a hurricane are relatively straightforward. You know, they derive their energy from the ocean, the warm oceans of the tropical Atlantic, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. And that creates a low pressure. And then a low pressure brings the winds inward. And that's what generates the strong winds. And same as with the storm surge. Storm surge is literally just the strong winds of a hurricane pushing saltwater or seawater, towards land. And if the winds are strong enough, it can push the water up and onto the land, flooding homes and communities. While drowning remains the leading cause of mortality, the last ten years of hurricanes, we've seen a very abrupt drop in mortality from storm surge. And we think and hope it's due to the advanced warning systems that NOAA has implemented. 

HOST: Jamie, as a hurricane specialist, can you tell us a bit about the National Hurricane Center’s work? 

RHOME: Oh, great question. So most meteorologists or most people in weather, we laughingly said they were born that way. Because most people are drawn to weather at a very, very early age, you know, usually 5 or 6 years old, they start gravitating towards the weather. And I was no different in that regard. In the beginning, you know, it was with winter weather because I lived in North Carolina and, you know, winter weather was a big deal. You know, the presence of snow in the South is a big deal. As I got into college, the state was hit by a couple of pretty impactful hurricanes, and I got to see firsthand how devastated the community was, how much it  devastated people's lives, disrupted commerce, and disrupted the community. And that led me to, you know, want to work in hurricanes. So, much of the Hurricane Center consists of experts that have a similar journey or similar experience. They were drawn to this work through some sort of experience with a hurricane as they were younger. We're a relatively small group, and I think that's what lends to our ability to be very, very nimble and respond to these dynamic situations. Our staff consists of experts across multiple disciplines. So it's not just meteorology. We've got people with backgrounds in oceanography, IT and computer science, so that they maintain the complicated systems that we use at the Hurricane Center. And so it's a really neat place to work because of the multidisciplinary aspects of it. This will be my 25th hurricane season. I still find myself learning from my colleagues. There hasn't been a single hurricane season in that 25 year run where I didn't learn something. 

HOST: Kevin, could you talk to us a bit about your experience as a Hurricane Hunter pilot? What's it like to fly through the eye of a storm and what's happening onboard during that process?

DOREMUS: Yeah, absolutely. So I feel very fortunate to have, I think, one of the most interesting jobs in the aviation community. Most people take their airplanes and they fly away from the weather that we're targeting and we're trying to go into. So, definitely a unique job that offers some really interesting perspectives and some great views as well. So, they call us the Hurricane Hunters because our job is to hunt for the center of the storm. The scientists want us to get to that zero wind part of the storm or the eye of the storm so they can mark the location of the storm, find out where it's going, find out  how strong it is, and if it's getting stronger or if it's getting weaker. And so we get into the eye of the storm on the well developed storms, a Cat-3 or higher. Typically we get what's called this stadium effect. It's basically like you're sitting in the middle of a stadium and you look around you and all you see is a wall of clouds around you – 360 degrees. But you look up and you see clear skies, and you look down and you see the ocean. So certainly a unique perspective. But it's a lot of fun. It's a lot of fun flying. Every single flight is a little bit different. Every storm has its own personality. And that's what makes it really interesting every single day that we get to fly. Now, it's not always exciting. We fly 8 to 12 hour missions. A lot of that can be very boring. A lot of it can be just transiting through a storm that's really far offshore. Sometimes it'll take us up to 3 or 4 hours just to get into the storm environment. So it's not all fun and exciting all the time. The good news is, we've got a little kitchen in the back so we can make some snacks; make sure to download some extra Netflix when I get some quiet moments. But, yeah. Overall, you know, we work primarily for the National Weather Service and the Hurricane Research Division, and our job is to do two different things. “A,” find out where the storm is, where it is and what it's doing, and “B,” conduct some scientific research in the storm, which will help forecasters improve future storm forecasting.

HOST: First of all, what kind of snacks are y’all normally having when you're in the kitchen making snacks? 

DOREMUS: Well, so we have a pretty big crew. Usually a minimum of about 12 to 13, up to 21. And one of our crew members is a navigator, and they have a very critical job, especially when in the storm environment, plugging in really complicated flight patterns and making sure we get our timing right. But when we're transiting, a lot of times they're not so busy. And so we typically put them in the back of the airplane, and we do fly with, like, a little electric griddle, and we can make some breakfast sandwiches. We can make French toast. We try to make things that you can kind of cook quickly and then tuck it all away, because, you know, when you do get in the storm environment, everything has got to be bolted down pretty good.

HOST: Oh, wow. I love that. That's pretty cool. You said that there could be up to 21 folks on the plane. How large are the Hurricane Hunter planes?

DOREMUS: So the best kind of analogy I can give you, it's about the same size as a Southwest Airlines airplane or, like, a 737. Now you can put a lot more people in a 737 but most of the interior space in an airplane is taken up by scientific racks and equipment that are supporting the research and operations that are going on. And what we'll do is we'll do multiple passes through the storm. So sometimes as little as three, sometimes as many as 15. And so as we're progressing through our flight and the pressure is consistently dropping every time we fly through the storm, we know the storm is getting stronger. If the pressure is rising, you know the storm is getting weaker. And then we can also see what direction the storm is moving. So every time we mark that location, we can see, all right, the storm moved 15 miles to the northwest. You can calculate a speed and a motion on that. And so if anybody remembers Hurricane Dorian, it was a major Category 5 storm that appeared to be heading right for the state of Florida. And the kind of far-out forecast kind of freaked a lot of people out in Florida and also a lot of the East Coast of the United States. And the information that we were providing to the Hurricane Center allowed them to issue a very, very accurate forecast. And that forecast had that Category 5 storm coming right off the coast of Florida, park in for a short amount of time and then shooting up the coastline, but not actually making landfall on the East Coast of the United States. And the Hurricane Center was so confident in that track based on, in part, some of the information that was coming from our aircraft, that they got to tell essentially all those people that could potentially have been impacted, “You don't need to evacuate. You can stay at home and be safe with your family, or you can prepare for X amount of winds that you're expecting.” And if they weren't able to have that level of confidence, they would have had to evacuate hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. And so it kind of just highlighted how important it is for us to take our airplane into that weather to give the Hurricane Center that information. And, you know, it also is memorable in my mind because my wife was very pregnant with our first child at the time and we, you know, saw this storm coming and we were starting to like, call our doctors, “Do we need to go relocate?” And so every time I took off, I was thinking to myself, like, man, I really hope this forecast changes, and I really hope I don’t land and get a phone call that says I missed the birth of my first child, but luckily the Hurricane Center nailed it. They did a great job. My wife got to stay at home, and then after Dorian, my first child was born just a few days later. 

HOST: Wow. You know, thank you so much, Kevin, for sharing that story. It's pretty clear that these missions help researchers to better understand and prepare for storms. And so I also want to say thank you to you and your copilots and everyone else on the team who are doing this incredibly brave work to gather information on storms and keep Americans safe in the face of severe weather. We appreciate it. Bianca, as a meteorologist and Emergency Response Specialist with NWS, a big part of your job is translating this weather data into actionable information for emergency managers and decision makers. What does that process look like in action?

FELDKIRCHER: So in my role as an emergency response specialist, you know, we really serve as that liaison between the weather forecast offices and then all of the atmospheric and physical science entities. So this includes the National Hurricane Center. So we don't necessarily issue those warnings and forecasts, but we do relay the forecast and the warnings to the decision makers they serve. They need to know again where to put their resources, which areas they need to evacuate. So I know that typically you don't think of hurricanes hitting Southern California. It's an extremely rare thing. But actually, the past two years and last summer, we did have one. It was just a tropical storm, but it was really close to being a Category One hurricane that hit southern California. And again, this was the first time and a lot of our partners, especially the state of California, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, they’d never dealt with something like this before. It was the first time we had ever even issued tropical storm watches and warnings for Southern California, ever. So it was a whole new experience for them. So it really took a lot of communication, making sure that they understood our forecast and all of the variety of alerts that we have so that they can make the proper decisions.

HOST: I know that you also worked as a meteorologist. Could you tell me about what drew you to meteorology? 

FELDKIRCHER: Yeah. So I've wanted to be a meteorologist since I was like 3 or 4. So being from Florida, like, everyone knows about the infamous Hurricane Andrew, and my mom was eight months pregnant with me during Hurricane Andrew. And they actually had to make similar decisions that Kevin and his wife had to make. So, like, do we have to go to a hospital or do we need to leave? So they went to my grandma's house, and unfortunately, after Andrew passed through, their entire house was completely destroyed. It was impossible, nearly impossible, for them to even find the house with all the destruction. But once they found it, they realized that there wasn't much there. But thankfully my bedroom, for some reason, was still intact. And they have all of these videos and pictures, and I even have them stored in my computer right now, because seeing what my family went through and just having such a strong interest for hurricanes, like I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist. I want to know more about hurricanes. I want to protect people and property. I want to make sure that our research continues to improve, and we can find ways to alleviate some of the disasters that happen from hurricanes, especially with fatalities. 

HOST: Bianca, thank you for sharing your story. What should Americans know about hurricanes? 

DOREMUS: So, Americans need to be really aware about the hazards associated with a hurricane, especially those Americans that are living in an area that could be impacted by this tropical weather system. The National Hurricane Center has an excellent website with a lot of really good resources that will help you learn more about hurricanes if you're interested in learning about their associated hazards that aren't just winds. Like, storm surge is one of the biggest causes for loss of life from a tropical weather system. And so understanding what it is, understanding the resources that are available for you to prepare and your family to prepare is very, very important if you do live in an area that is impacted by this tropical weather phenomenon. 

RHOME: I have for 25 years, you know, one of my jobs is I go into communities after they've been hit by a devastating hurricane. You know, my job is to not only survey the damage and try to determine if there are lessons learned from a forecast communication perspective, but I often end up asking people, you know, “What did you hear? What information did you hear? What did you react to? What caused you to evacuate? What caused you to not evacuate?” And you know, you really learn a lot from this exercise. But the thing I've learned most is that the people and communities that prepare before June 1st do the best. It is the communities and the individuals who wait until the last minute, meaning they wait until a hurricane has formed and is aimed at them. You know, they desperately scramble to get fuel, to get supplies, to harden their homes, to figure out what they're going to do with their pets, to get their prescriptions renewed, to figure out what they're going to do with their elderly parents. And they run out of time. They run out of time. Two days is not enough to do all of those things because remember, it's crowded. Everybody else is doing it too. There's lines at the store, there's lines at the gas station. So do everything now. In May, you're going to see me start going through the motions of, you know, pulling out my supplies, making sure everything's in place, making sure everything's in working order. I have two generators; making sure they both work and are functional. It scares my neighbors to death when I pull those generators out. But that should be telling you something. I'm not waiting until a hurricane is aimed right at my community. I'm doing it now. 

FELDKIRCHER: Especially if you've been through a hurricane before. I mean, the power could be out for weeks. So if you haven't gotten your emergency kit ready, please do so soon. And then some of the tips of some of the things to put in there would be for sure water. We all need water, because water, not even just for drinking, you know, you need to use the restroom, for cooking, even nonperishable food, things that will last a long time. Batteries, flashlights, toilet paper. Because apparently we've learned from the pandemic that is like the number one thing it seems like people go for.

RHOME: Think of you're going camping, and what would you pack to go camping? You know, cooler ice and water and food. And you would pack food that is easy to, you know, cook or prepare outside the modern conveniences of a full kitchen. You would pack things to be comfortable, as comfortable as you can be sleeping and stay warm and protect you from rain. You know, if you think like packing for camping, it's not so mentally overwhelming. The one thing that does get a little bit more sophisticated is people often fail to realize what life is like without power, and power is often lost during a storm for days. You know, there's a myriad of health conditions that do require power, that you're thinking through that component. What would you do? Do you have family nearby? And you would drive to their house because they didn't lose power? Are you going to invest in a safe backup power in the form of a generator? What are you going to do to work through a dependency on power? Because it can and will be lost. So think through that mentally, especially if you have an elderly parent or you know someone in your home that is very much dependent on power for their livelihood. 

HOST: Thank you. Can each of you tell us a little bit about any new tech or forecasting procedures on the horizon that are helping us to research and monitor storms?

RHOME: I think in terms of physical meteorology or physical science, we're approaching what we call the limits of predictability; meaning, I don't think we're going to see the radical advances in predictive accuracy that we've seen over the past ten years. The next frontier for us, I think, is understanding how to communicate with people. I mean, the way people consume information now is totally different than the way they consumed information ten years ago. And we're trying to dynamically shift to, you know, produce content and warnings and information on new platforms in new formats and in new ways to sort of meet people where they are. So it's not just the other National Weather Service forecast offices who are heavily involved in not only the creation of the warnings, but the dissemination and communication of those warnings to the local community. It's the other national centers, such as the Environmental Modeling Center, which is running the models that we use to make the predictions. It's the Weather Prediction Center which is producing the heavy rainfall forecasts that we use for the flooding information. There’s the Storm Prediction Center that is producing the forecast of tornadoes and severe weather during the hurricane. And then the broader NOAA community. There's a huge response to people who run our satellites. Satellite is a critical component of the data we use. The response and recovery on the backside of the storm. You know, our colleagues at the National Ocean Service often have to go in and survey ports and harbors to reopen them to ensure commerce is back online as quickly as possible. And I've only touched on probably 5% in that discussion of the breadth of what NOAA does as it pertains to hurricanes. 

DOREMUS: One of the most exciting technologies that we're working with at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center is with the use of uncrewed systems. And so this is nothing new. We've been working with these for a long time to try to figure out how we can integrate this new technology into our data set. And in recent history, we have had some very interesting success in our research and development program, when we launched an uncrewed system from the P-3 into the eye of a hurricane. So this is a small, tube-launched uncrewed system where we basically shoot it out of the airplane and the wings fold out in flight, and then it can fly around in the eye of the storm, sending really, really important information from the uncrewed system up to our aircraft. And so what that allows us to do is gather some very interesting and important data, at an altitude in an area that's too dangerous for us to take our crewed aircraft. And so while we're up anywhere between 8 and 10,000 feet, we can take this uncrewed system and put it down in what's called the boundary layer of very low altitude. That's where, nobody really cares what the weather is doing at 8,000 feet. Right? They want to know what's going on down on the surface, where it's going to be impacting people's lives. 

FELDKIRCHER: It's really hard to get data safely from inside a hurricane. So the data that we collect on those Hurricane Hunter missions is collected via the GPS drops. And then also we do have aircraft radar on those planes. And this gives us the vertical and horizontal scan of the storms, and it gives us forecasters in the Weather Service a real-time look at the storm, which is amazing because we do have satellite data, but that's from above. So this is really helping us get a look at the storm real time from the inside. And we get that vertical scan of the storm via those dropsondes. And if you can envision it, it's like a package of instruments and they're tethered to these little parachutes and they're actually dropped from the inside of the Hurricane Hunter plane. There are actually 1 or 2 people dedicated on a mission to dropping these all throughout the storm as we're flying through. And they fall slowly all the way into the ocean. And then as they're falling into the ocean, from the planes, they send back reports, via radio signal about their location and then the atmosphere around them as they fall. They are reporting the temperature, the wind direction and wind speed, the air pressure and the humidity as they fall through or around the hurricane. So it's really cool because we really wouldn't be able to do any of this without the Hurricane Hunters. We would be relying on such limited data because, again, these storms form out in the middle of the ocean. So we do have different ways of gathering some of the data from hurricanes. But it really isn't until those Hurricane Hunters fly through the hurricane or around the hurricane that really helps us tune into all of those finer details that help us give you all a better forecast.

HOST: Okay, hearing about the dropsondes reminds me of Matthew McConaughey dropping TARS from the ship to collect data from the black hole in Interstellar.

FELDKIRCHER: Yes. Good point, good point. 

HOST: Love it. The dropsondes – does someone then come to pick them up out of the ocean? 

DOREMUS: Yeah. So they're designed to be one time use, and they are made of a cardboard-like material so that when it hits the water, over time, they will disintegrate.

HOST: Love it. Whether you're engaging in fieldwork or relaying crucial lifesaving information to folks, what does it mean to each of you to serve the public with NOAA? 

RHOME: Oh, that's the best part of the job. The sense of purpose and the sense of mission. Even, you know, there's no shortage of feedback mechanisms for me, whether it's the public emailing us or calling us. Or sometimes I'm out in the community and people come up and talk to us. There's no shortage of times where I constantly get feedback that we're helping people and helping people, not in trivial ways, helping people in very, very, very significant ways, whether it be people who will point blank say, “I evacuated because of something we did or something we said.” And then you look at their house and there's nothing there. It's literally wiped down to the slab. And then that person standing next to that rubble saying, “We evacuated because of something you said or something you did,” is the greatest benefit of the job. 

DOREMUS: So every time we fly a hurricane mission, the Hurricane Center will take the information from our storm and issue a new forecast. And many times, for the weather nerds that are listening, there is a whole separate kind of section to the weather forecast that's called the discussion section. And in that discussion section, it's essentially the forecaster's thought process on what's going on with the storm, and they share that with the general public. And it's really rewarding for us when we go fly a storm and we land and we pull up the new forecasts. And one of the first things it says is, “Incredible, valuable data coming from the NOAA Hurricane Hunters allowed us to adjust the forecast this way or this way, or sped it up or slowed it down.” And just knowing that there are so many people that are reliant on the data from my aircraft, you know, just to know if their lives are going to be impacted. So that's a really rewarding kind of piece of our job, where you get to see very viscerally, “What we did was important that day.”

FELDKIRCHER: And I would just like to add on that if you didn't know, very similar to those Hurricane Hunter missions being 24/7, the Weather Service also operates 24/7. And when we are getting a hurricane, when we are getting severe weather, when we are getting winter storms, we are likely working over time, but it's that feeling of serving you all that gives us that energy and that drive to keep going forward. I mean, it's such a rewarding job.

HOST: Thanks to all of you for joining us today on Planet NOAA. We really appreciate you for your time and for the work that you're doing.

RHOME: Thank you. 

DOREMUS: Thanks so much for having us. I really appreciate the invitation. 

FELDKIRCHER: Thank you so much for having us. This was so fun. I loved talking with you all and talking hurricanes.

HOST: Welcome back, Tara. Talk to me a bit more about the expansion of NOAA Weather Radio and the National Weather Service network.

GARWOOD: You got it, Symone! Last episode, my partner in crime Tom DiLiberto walked us through the 1974 Super Outbreak of tornadoes that ended up fundamentally changing the structure of the National Weather Service, or NWS. With nearly 150 violent tornadoes touching down in the Ohio Valley, South and Great Lakes, NWS meteorologists experienced what is referred to as a “warning bottleneck.” With so many tornado warnings being issued at once, they weren’t able to be transmitted on time, placing people’s lives in jeopardy. With the Super Outbreak as the catalyst, and an increase in funding from Congress, hundreds of transmitters and new broadcast frequencies were installed to keep Americans up-to-date on weather alerts. Along with these improvements, anyone with a weather radio could now receive alerts from their local NWS office right as warnings were being issued – complete with an emergency alert tone to wake up folks sleeping at night. Today, NWS operates over 1,000 transmitters that provide alerts and coverage for all 50 states, territories, and coastal waters.

HOST: I wonder what some of those midnight radio alerts sounded like.

GARWOOD: Symone, we did a little crate digging for you. Stick with us for a special treat from NOAA’s attic!

HOST: Did You NOAA that our agency’s ships and aircraft comprise the largest fleet of federal research vessels in the nation? Clocking in at 15 research & survey ships and 10 specialized aircraft, our Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, or OMAO, has tons of exciting scientific projects underway. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Rear Admiral Nancy Hann to the Leadership Corner to chat about some of NOAA’s missions both in the water and far above us in the sky. Rear Admiral Nancy Hann is the Director of OMAO and the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, or NOAA Corps for short. She has served aboard NOAA aircraft as both a pilot and flight meteorologist, and has supported a variety of scientific missions and multiple unmanned aircraft missions as both a pilot and project manager. Rear Admiral Hann, thank you for joining us!

REAR ADMIRAL NANCY HANN: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

HOST: To kick us off, can you share a bit about your scientific background with us? I’m  especially curious about what drew you to aviation.

HANN: Sure, that's a great question. I've always been interested in science. From the youngest age I can remember, I've been fascinated by science. Playing outside, looking at bugs, looking at plants. When I got a chance to go to the ocean, or any body of water, seeing what I could find, living. It's always been just a fascinating field for me. So I grew up in Illinois, so not too close to any ocean, and I was able to see the ocean for the first time in high school when I went to California. And I remember I'd always seen the ocean, that that is something I was drawn to, and I wanted to spend my life studying it. Growing up in Illinois, I always had an interest in the weather. We got quite a few tornadoes that came through there, and now I always remember watching the sky. It would turn green and get eerily calm when a tornado was in the vicinity and thunderstorms that came through. I just always remember a fascination with weather. So NOAA ended up being a perfect opportunity for me to put my love of science and weather together. NOAA, I really had the opportunity through NOAA, to connect the ocean and the air, to study the ocean, study the atmosphere, but also marry the operational fields of maritime science working as a scientist on ships, working as a deckhand on ships, working as an officer on ships, and then transitioning to the aircraft part of our portfolio. When I was on my first sea assignment for NOAA; I went to sea quite a bit before I became a commissioned officer. But in my first sea tour as a commissioned officer, I was on a ship up in the Bering Sea studying fisheries oceanography, and an opportunity came up to apply for aviation within the NOAA Corps, within NOAA. It's something I had always wanted to do. I just thought I would do it on my own. I didn't realize I'd have an opportunity to do it as a job, do it as my career. And so I went to flight school after I completed that sea assignment. And it was weather that drew me in. I was always fascinated by the weather and wanted to learn more about it. And NOAA's flight missions are very diverse. We track whales and provide that information to the Coast Guard so they can safely manage the traffic lanes or the channels within the ocean. But we do a lot of weather work. So we fly into the hurricanes, we fly atmospheric rivers, we fly snow surveys that are used for hydrological, and flooding forecasts. So the weather that NOAA flies is what was really fascinating to me, learning more about that, getting closer to it, collecting that data is what drew me to aviation. 

HOST: Wow, I love that. That's exciting. NOAA Corps officers are clearly an integral part of the agency. On May 22nd, the NOAA Corps, which is one of the nation’s eight uniformed services, will celebrate its 107th birthday – what kind of work do these officers engage in, and what makes the NOAA Corps unique?

HANN: The NOAA Corps is such an exciting service to be part of. Our mission is linked to every single American every day. Whether someone looks at their weather forecasts, like you probably did today, to figure out, “What am I going to wear? Or what's the weather going to be like? What will my day be like?” To the seafood that you consume, to, if you do any kind of boating, the nautical charts that people rely on. NOAA Corps is involved in all of that. So we manage – we operate NOAA's 15 ships and 10 aircraft and uncrewed systems. We manage, with our civilian partners, NOAA's dive program and also the Small Boat Program. So NOAA Corps are the operators of the ships in the aircraft and many of the uncrewed systems. And then, we're really, I call us the connective tissue across NOAA because we're taking those scientific requirements. We're collecting the data to make the products and services like weather forecasts that Americans depend on. When we're not in our operational assignments, then we work ashore, whether it's in a science lab, in one of our marine or aircraft operations center, in one of our scientific laboratories within NOAA, we're that connective tissue, making sure that the scientific requirements are translated into operational plans so that we can collect that really critical data. So NOAA Corps officers are unique in that we're all scientists by trade. So we all have a pretty robust background in science, math or associated fields. And then we bring our operational experience or operational training and we operationalize that science. So it's a really interesting niche of uniformed service. We get to do all of that while serving our country and serving American citizens.

HOST: Wow, that’s really amazing. I will say that when I go to events and we’re meeting students or folks that are interested in moving on in their careers, when we talk about the NOAA Corps, folks get really excited. They’re always amazed by the work that the officers are doing, and they say, you know, “I had no idea that NOAA was doing this.” So we definitely see the on-the-ground impact of the NOAA Corps. We talked a bit today about Hurricane Hunter aircrafts, which are piloted by NOAA Corps officers. As a flight meteorologist on one of these missions, what is it like? You know, how does it feel flying into these storms?

HANN: So, a flight meteorologist…when I went back to school to study meteorology and then had the opportunity to learn and serve as a flight meteorologist on our G-IV and P-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft. So we serve as a flight meteorologist/flight director – is what we're called. So we sit at the seat in the aircraft right behind the cockpit where the feeds for the radars are coming in. The aircraft are equipped with several radars so that we have situational awareness of the weather around us, the weather that we may be going into. The scientists or the forecast centers…the National Hurricane Center will give us flight tracks that show us where they want us to fly through the weather system, whether it's a hurricane or an atmospheric river, where they want us to drop dropwindsondes, which are devices we drop from the aircraft, and they transmit back information on the wind direction and speed, the temperature and humidity. So the flight director is taking the input from the scientist, is looking at all of our data from our radars on the planes from all the information that we can get from the computer to see where it is safe for us to fly, while trying to collect that data that we need for the most accurate forecast possible. You're talking to the cockpit, to the pilots, you're talking to the navigator in the P-3, you're talking to the chief scientist, and you're coordinating all of that with your primary mission is to keep the personnel in the aircraft safe. I do remember a mission we flew after Hurricane Katrina after it made landfall…we did flights up until landfall to collect data and help inform the forecast. And then we did a flight just after landfall, and I remember flying over the area and just being…and the plane was just quiet. Nobody was saying anything, and the damage from that hurricane was hard to even comprehend. I remember flying over a big bridge. It was a big concrete bridge, and I don't remember the name of the bridge, but it had just been toppled like a pile of toothpicks. And I just couldn't believe the power of the hurricane and just toppling down a huge concrete bridge. So that flight really sticks with me because it really reminded me of the importance of what we do, of collecting that data and producing the best possible forecasts that we can to provide to the public and to the emergency managers and remove people from harm to the extent that we can.

HOST: Wow. That just gave me chills to hear you recount that story. We’ve been discussing prep for the upcoming hurricane season. How does OMAO contribute to disaster prep and relief efforts under your leadership?

HANN: We in NOAA and OMAO, we work very closely with our colleagues in the National Weather Service, and through their partnership, very closely with emergency managers – city, county, state, federal levels. It's really important that we're all coordinated. Through that coordination, too, we also work with our, you know, other federal government partners like the Coast Guard. So before the season starts, we make sure that we're all coordinated. Our flights are coordinated through the National Hurricane Operations Plan to make sure we all know what we need to do, and we're ready to do it. Sometimes people are reluctant to follow the guidance when it comes again to evacuate. So we do a lot of work to try to communicate with people. Each year before the hurricane season starts, we do a hurricane awareness tour, so we take our aircraft, usually one of our P-3 and our G4 aircraft, and we fly a total of five cities. We alternate between the East Coast of the U.S. and then the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S.. And over a period of five days, we'll go to one city every day and we'll do tours on our aircraft to show the aircraft, show the capabilities, discuss the data we collect, the forecast that's produced, and we will tour sometimes thousands of people a day. In 2024, we'll be visiting five cities starting May 6th. On May 6th we’ll be in Portland, Maine; on May 7th, we'll be in Albany, New York; on May 8th, we’ll be in Norfolk, Virginia; on May 9th, we’ll be in Charleston, South Carolina; and May 10th we’ll be in Sanford, Florida. More information on the dates and locations in the hours of the public tours can be found at Or if people type “NOAA hurricane awareness tours 2024” in their local search engine, it should pop up. We also communicate that, you know, over the years through innovative instrumentation in NOAA and with other partners, through the airplanes, we've been able to improve hurricane forecasts. The track forecast has improved pretty significantly. The cone of uncertainty at three days – and that's if you look at a hurricane forecast that's kind of, like it says, the cone, that almost triangle area – it shows a swath of, “Here's where the storm could hit.” That error has reduced from over 250 miles to just 35 miles. So that's been the impact of collecting that data and working with the scientists, the forecasters… is that instead of telling everybody in the 250 miles they need to evacuate, you know, we've been able to really refine it down to those 35 miles of people that need to evacuate. So it's really important to get the forecast accurate, because there is a risk to life and property of people evacuating that don't need to evacuate, just as there is if people don't evacuate. So it's really important to be as specific as possible where we tell people they need to evacuate.

HOST: That’s pretty incredible, and that makes a major difference when it comes to ordering evacuations. Aside from the missions we’ve already talked about, where can we find OMAO’s mark on the world right now? 

HANN: OMAO is a really exciting place right now. And I don't just say that as a director, I wish…I tell our newest officers that just graduated and our newest employees, “I wish I could start all over and do this again for another 30 years, because it's such an exciting time.” We do a lot of work on ships. We're building four ships right now, so we're building 25% of our fleet new. We're building new aircraft right now that'll be the most capable aircraft in the world. Right now, we're building a new G-550 aircraft. It will be our new high altitude jet. And it is going to be an amazing aircraft. We'll have apertures, which are basically holes on the top of the bottom of the aircraft that are filled with plates so we can pressurize the aircraft. But that will give us the opportunity to put in new scientific instrumentation that we've never been able to carry before. We'll have wing hardpoints, which allows us to carry different instruments and sensors that flies out on the wings. We'll have a nose boom in the front of the aircraft that provides a clean intake for air samples. So the new aircraft will just have a lot of new capabilities that allow us to do new, innovative, cutting-edge science and keep improving those products NOAA produces. Again, whether it's a weather forecast or a global climate model. So it'll be exciting to have that. We just brought two new King Air aircraft online, so we use those to do our snow survey. Those have two camera ports now. So we're able to do a lot of missions with those. One mission I'd like to talk about that we just worked on was the response and recovery to the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. We were called in with our aircraft to do flights above the bridge and take high resolution images with that King Air aircraft I mentioned. So we have really high resolution cameras that we put in the belly of the aircraft and take pictures. Those provided the response crews, the emergency managers, the salvage crews, and the recovery teams a really detailed look at the bridge and the dolly, the ship that was there to start planning how they would do the recovery. At the same time, we put response teams in the water in boats that have high resolution imagery where they can map the bottom of the ocean, but they can also do soundings from the water to the top of the bridge to see what that height was. As a result of the work that the NOAA officers and civilians led, they're able to open two auxiliary channels to allow some traffic in and out of the harbor. And that was important because with the harbor shutdown, that's $15 million a day of cargo that's coming in and out of Baltimore Harbor. By mapping and opening these two auxiliary channels, some of the shallower draft traffic now can move in and out of that channel; we're working on a possible third auxiliary channel. We also aided in the recovery efforts to try to identify the six missing persons. We put buoys in the water and provided personnel on scene to provide local weather forecasts exactly at that spot where they're doing the recovery efforts. And then the buoy that we put in provided currents, real time.

HOST: Thank you so much for sharing that. You know, my family and I are from Baltimore. I live in Baltimore. And so this event really hit close to home for me. 

HANN:  Thank you for sharing that, Symone. It's been…I mean, the impacts of this are really significant to the Baltimore community. And I just hope we can keep working together to get business back to normal for Baltimore as much as possible and as quickly as possible.

HOST: I really do appreciate it. This has really been a pleasure to chat with you and to hear about the work that you're doing. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with us today?

HANN: Yeah, I think for anyone listening that's younger, just thinking about their scientific career, or has been interested in a career in NOAA and thinks for some reason they can't do it. Whether they've been told that or they look around and see a lot of people that look like them, I would just really encourage people to chase their dreams and not give up on them. There's a whole interesting world, whether it's through the NOAA Corps, OMAO, or NOAA more broadly that's so rewarding. And it's so important. And I get so frustrated when I hear people say, “Oh, someone told me I couldn't do it,” right. “A teacher told me, or a parent told me, or a student told me I couldn't do it”. And I just would really encourage people to stick with their dreams and know that NOAA, NOAA's mission is absolutely amazing. It's critical to the U.S.. And there's a place for everybody.

HOST: Yes, love that. You know, as an educator, I’m always here for supporting and uplifting the younger generation. Thank you again for joining us.

HANN: Thank you, Symone. I really appreciated this opportunity to talk with you and I really enjoyed the conversation.

HOST: We’re back with Tara, who has promised us a very special treat.

GARWOOD: And I’m here to deliver! We dug up a NOAA original – a Tornado Safety Announcements vinyl that hasn’t been in action for 50 years or so. And since it dates back to before 1970 – NOAA wasn’t even called NOAA yet! The agency was originally the Environmental Science Services Administration, or ESSA, before undergoing a name change and reorganization in 1970. So, this vinyl cover is branded with the original ESSA logo. Let’s check out what was being broadcast for listeners at the time: 

ESSA ANNOUNCER: Don't gamble with a tornado watch. The stakes are too high. When you hear the watch, your ESSA Weather Bureau urges you to alert your neighbors and be sure members of your family stay near a safe shelter. Don't take unnecessary risks. Your radio or TV is a lifeline of information, broadcasting safety rules and storm bulletins. Keep it turned on until the tornado watch is over. The tornado may pass you by. Odds are in favor of it, but don't bet your life on it.

HOST: Okay, we need to get this announcer on the podcast. What a great voice!

GARWOOD: I wish we knew who he was! Mystery tornado safety announcement guy, we salute you! If you want to hear more of these announcements, or see what else we’ve dug up in NOAA’s attic, check out our Friday Finds on

HOST: Thanks for tuning in to Planet NOAA. We’ll see you in June for Ocean Month, where you’ll get to NOAA the ocean with a little help from our resident marine experts!