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NOAA’s WP-3D Orion (top) and Gulfstream IV-SP (bottom)
NOAA’s WP-3D Orion (top) and Gulfstream IV-SP (bottom)
NOAA

These Scientists Intentionally Fly Into Hurricanes

NOAA’s WP-3D Orion (top) and Gulfstream IV-SP (bottom)
NOAA’s WP-3D Orion (top) and Gulfstream IV-SP (bottom)
NOAA

Hurricanes are a terrifying display of nature's power. Even last century, a perfectly sunny day could turn into unimaginable horror without any warning at all, as storms leveled entire towns and upended thousands of lives. We've come a long way since those dark days, and now we can watch hurricanes churn over the ocean in weather broadcasts in time to get out of the way. One of the best ways we can follow these storms is thanks to the men and women who make up the so-called (yes, actually) Hurricane Hunters.

The Hurricane Hunters are scientists working for both NOAA and the United States Air Force who fly airplanes into the worst parts of a hurricane to tell us first-hand what the storm is doing. Bad-ass scientists began regularly flying into storms (on purpose) after World War II, and today the practice is a standard part of hurricane forecasting in the United States. If satellite and radar imagery of a storm are like doctors taking an x-ray of your body, the work of the Hurricane Hunters is like drawing blood, sampling the inside of the storm to get a good idea of what it's doing at the moment.

NOAA's two famous Hurricane Hunter aircraft are Lockheed WP-3D Orions—nicknamed "Miss Piggy" and "Kermit"—that are equipped with special sensors and devices that help the meteorologists look at the storm and understand what makes it tick. The U.S. Air Force's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron also operates a fleet of 10 WC-130J Hercules aircraft that utilize similar equipment when they fly out into storms.

radar image of Hurricane Matthew, September 2016
A radar image of Hurricane Matthew over the southern Caribbean Sea on September 30, 2016, taken from a NOAA WP-3D Orion.
NOAA-AOC/Google Earth

All of the aircraft are equipped with Doppler weather radar that helps both the airplane crew and meteorologists back on dry ground understand the internal structure of a storm. This radar imagery is useful for seeing the structure of the eyewall—important for determining its strength and longevity—as well as information about rain bands and any intrusions of dry air that could affect the storm's future.

The most important feature of all Hurricane Hunter aircraft is dropsondes, or small tubes filled with weather sensors that are dropped from the aircraft into the storm. Dropsondes work on the same principle as weather balloons, but the sensors go in the opposite direction—up to down. These sensor packages measure conditions like temperature, dew point (moisture), and air pressure, while GPS sensors help determine wind speed and direction. This information is relayed back to the crew in real-time. Dropsondes help meteorologists measure the lowest surface air pressure within the eye of a storm as well as the highest wind speeds in the storm.

One of the most innovative tools the Hurricane Hunters use is a piece of technological wizardry known as a Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer, or SFMR. The SFMR is a device attached to the wing of the aircraft that monitors the amount of microwave radiation being reflected beneath the plane by factors like waves, sea foam, and rainfall rates. Meteorologists are able to use data collected by the SFMR to accurately estimate the wind speed beneath the aircraft. In fact, the National Hurricane Center was able to use data collected by an SFMR on one of the Air Force's planes to determine that Hurricane Patricia's peak winds reached a record-breaking 215 mph [PDF] off the western coast of Mexico in October 2015, which is the highest wind speed ever recorded in a tropical cyclone anywhere in the world.

NOAA also uses a Gulfstream IV-SP aircraft to survey the environments around and ahead of tropical cyclones as they draw closer to land. These aircraft fly at high altitudes and release dropsondes to measure both moisture and wind speed and direction to help meteorologists better understand the environment into which the storm is heading. This data, along with more frequent weather balloon releases on land, can be ingested into weather models to help forecasters create more accurate predictions for the eventual track a tropical storm or hurricane will take—and help keep you safe.

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NOAA’s WP-3D Orion (top) and Gulfstream IV-SP (bottom)
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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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NOAA’s WP-3D Orion (top) and Gulfstream IV-SP (bottom)
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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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