September 29, 2023
These girls chase hurricanes to assemble essential climate information

(CNN) — “You are at all times taught to steer clear of hurricanes.”

Lieutenant Commander Danielle Varwig says that is what most pilots would inform you — however she is not like most pilots.

As a hurricane hunter for the US Nationwide Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Varwig spends her working day chasing the attention of the storm.

It isn’t for the thrills, although. Flying over tropical storms and hurricanes throughout the Caribbean and Atlantic Basin, Varwig and her workforce at NOAA accumulate climate information that may assist forecast the place and when hurricanes will make landfall.

They are saying that by placing themselves in peril, they hope to maintain others out of it.

“It is lives in danger. We’re doing this to assist others on the bottom that are not in a position to do that for themselves,” says Varwig.


‘A flying science lab’


Varwig pilots a Gulfstream IV jet that flies over the hurricane — when skies above the hurricane are clear, she says it is potential to get a “surreal” fowl’s eye vantage level of the entire storm.

Most of the time, although, visibility is poor. “We’re within the clouds, trusting our devices and flight administrators,” says Varwig.

Meteorologist Nikki Hathaway (left) and Lieutenant Commander Danielle Varwig flew on NOAA missions during the 2020 and 2021 hurricane season.

Meteorologist Nikki Hathaway (left) and Lieutenant Commander Danielle Varwig flew on NOAA missions throughout the 2020 and 2021 hurricane season.


Meteorologist Nikki Hathaway is one in all these flight administrators. She rides shotgun with Varwig, guiding her by means of a few of the most tough flying circumstances possible. Hathaway additionally accompanies pilots on NOAA’s P-3 Orion planes, which might fly straight into the storm.

These plane are “flying science labs” that host as much as 18 engineers, information technicians, scientists, and researchers, in addition to quite a lot of tech to assist the workforce collect information, says Hathaway.

The information “goes again right down to the Nationwide Hurricane Heart,” the place it is used “in real-time to make lifesaving choices impacting the individuals on the bottom probably in hurt’s manner,” says Hathaway.

A key piece of tech is a dropsonde, a tool that may be dropped from the plane, and can accumulate climate information similar to strain, temperature, and humidity because it falls to Earth. However a dropsonde can solely accumulate information in a single location, and the meteorologists cannot management it as soon as it is descending, limiting the vary of information they’ll collect.


Hurricane-hunting drones


Now, the workforce is utilizing storm-chasing drones to assemble extra information than ever earlier than on their hurricane-hunting missions.

NOAA has been experimenting with the drones, which could be operated remotely, gathering “a completely completely different scale” of data, says Hathaway. This 12 months, it started testing an unmanned plane known as Altius, which was deployed throughout Hurricane Ian in September 2022 — the primary hurricane in six years to make landfall in Florida.

With an eight-foot wingspan and weighing simply 27 kilos, these drones can fly the place the hurricane hunter’s planes can not. Throughout Hurricane Ian, Altius gathered information on temperature, strain, and moisture ranges within the eye of the storm, in addition to circumnavigating the hurricane at numerous altitudes starting from 200 ft to three,000 ft above the water and recording wind speeds that exceeded 216 miles per hour.

An Altius demonstration model in front of an NOAA WP-3D Orion plane at NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida on May 25, 2022.

An Altius demonstration mannequin in entrance of an NOAA WP-3D Orion aircraft at NOAA’s Plane Operations Heart in Lakeland, Florida on Might 25, 2022.


The drone can descend to the boundary layer of the hurricane, the half simply above the ocean the place warmth and moisture trigger extra intense gusts. Gaining details about the turbulence right here will assist scientists higher perceive how these storm techniques work.

The gear continues to be being examined, however Hathaway is happy about the way it will enhance hurricane modeling and predictions.

“Getting that information on this lowest degree (of the storm) goes to be very vital to hurricane forecasting sooner or later,” she provides.


Pushing boundaries


The work of those hurricane hunters is turning into more and more vital — and harmful — as local weather change causes extra devastating hurricanes with better wind speeds and rainfall.
Based mostly in Florida, Hathaway and her workforce have witnessed first-hand the menace posed by these excessive climate occasions. When Hurricane Ian hit their state, it generated once-in-a-thousand-years rainfall and water surges, killing a minimum of 125 individuals.
“When it is your individuals, when it is impacting your private home, there’s that further ingredient of stress at the back of your head,” says Hathaway. Rising sea ranges are more likely to worsen flooding from storm surges in future occasions, making NOAA’s predictions ever extra very important.
NOAA is not simply championing technological innovation at house. Earlier this 12 months, the group launched into a “groundbreaking mission” to analyze a hurricane nursery off the coast of West Africa, close to the Cape Verde Islands, the place lots of North America’s extreme storms begin. It was the primary time the hurricane hunters crossed the Atlantic — they usually hope that by learning storms earlier than they’re absolutely shaped, they’ll enormously enhance forecasts and perceive their storm tracks higher.
The sun pokes through the eye of the hurricane wall during Hurricane Ida in August 2021.

The solar pokes by means of the attention of the hurricane wall throughout Hurricane Ida in August 2021.


As a mom of two, Varwig is keenly conscious of the dangers she takes — and extra motivated to take them. “I do all the things for them,” says Varwig of her kids.

Whereas Varwig rejects the label of “feminine pilot,” she’s conscious of the shortage of ladies in her discipline — and hopes she will be able to encourage her kids and others to pursue their passions.

As a Black lady, “I need to put myself on the market to be a task mannequin to little ladies, to little Black ladies, individuals who really feel like they might be marginalized and never be capable to do what I do or something just like that,” says Varwig, including: “I need to be sure that others can look to me and say, ‘Okay, effectively she’s doing it, then I can too.'”

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