Giving thanks to the Hurricane Hunters and QuikSCAT scientists

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:54 PM GMT on November 21, 2007

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Everyone knows that flying into hurricanes is dangerous work. The NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft have flown a number of dangerous flights over the years, most recently in Hurricane Felix on September 2 this year. NOAA P-3 aircraft N42RF (affectionately called Kermit), penetrated a rapidly intensifying Hurricane Felix as it approached Category 5 intensity. The aircraft hit four G's of acceleration in both the up and down directions in Felix's eyewall. Regulations require a flight to be aborted at that level of turbulence, and Kermit returned to base. A detailed inspection of the aircraft the next day revealed no damage, and Kermit returned to service for the remainder of hurricane season.


Figure 1. A NOAA P-3 refuels in Cold Bay, Alaska (left) on its way to the Aleutian Islands to fly a mission in the 1987 Alaska Storms Program. Right: The two NOAA P-3's get de-iced at Brunswick Naval Air Station, Maine, as they prepare for a mission into a 'Noreaster during the Experiment on Rapidly Intensifying Cyclones over the Atlantic (ERICA) in 1989. Both photos taken by yours truly.

What is less appreciated is that these aircraft fly research missions into dangerous weather conditions year-round and world-wide, and some of the most dangerous flights have occurred far from the tropics. Earlier this year, Kermit experienced perhaps the most dangerous flight of its 31-year career. On February 9, the aircraft flew into an intense winter storm 500 miles east of Newfoundland. The mission was part of the Ocean Winds project, a study designed to test the accuracy of QuikSCAT satellite wind estimates in regions of high wind and heavy rain. Flying at 3,000 feet, the aircraft sampled the surface winds with its SFMR (Step Frequency Microwave Radiometer) and dropsondes. The flights were timed to coincide with an overhead pass of the QuikSCAT satellite, which also measured winds at the ocean surface. It was a bit of a rough ride, since the storm packed winds of 100-110 mph at flight level. Sea spray kicked up by the powerful winds reached all the way to flight level, coating the windshield with a thick white coating of salt. The windshield washer failed, leaving the windshield partially opaque. It was an unusually dry winter storm, and the rain showers needed to rinse the windshield clean were difficult to find.


Figure 2. QuikSCAT wind profile of the ocean surface at 21:22 GMT February 9, 2007, just before Kermit headed back to St. John's, Newfoundland.

After a successful 4-hour flight, the aircraft dropped its final dropsonde, and turned north to complete its final sampling run. Suddenly, crew members observed flames coming from the #3 engine, accompanied by an audible popping sound. "Fire on #3, flames, flames, flames!" came the cry over the on-board intercom system. The pilots and flight engineers immediately began an emergency shut down of the #3 engine. As they worked to shut down the engine, the ominous call, "Fire on #4!" came over the intercom. The pilot immediately began an emergency shut down of the #4 engine. With both engines on the right wing now shut down, the pilot cautiously ramped up power on the two engines on the left wing, turned the aircraft towards home base in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and attempted to climb. However, the aircraft was not able to climb on just two engines, and the pilot was forced to begin a gradual descent to 2600 feet. The pilot notified the crew to review their ditching placards, and word was send to air traffic control informing them of the emergency. Three tense minutes passed, as the crew attempted to figure out what had caused the multiple engine failures. Speculation centered on the unusually heavy accumulation of salt on the aircraft--but excessive salt had never been implicated in engine failures before. Then, the words they all dreaded, "Fire on #1!" burst out over the intercom. The flight engineer immediately pulled the emergency shutdown handle for the #1 engine, and Kermit began a 700 foot per minute descent towards the turbulent sea below.

The crew donned survival suits as the pilot issued a May-day distress call and prepared to ditch the aircraft. Beneath them, hurricane force winds blew over the night-shrouded North Atlantic waters. With waves easily reaching 20 feet, water temperatures near freezing, and 500 miles out at sea at night, prospects for survival were dim. Four minutes remained to restart one of the flamed-out engines, and the pilot called for an immediate restart of the #1 engine. As the flight engineer worked to comply, Kermit passed through a brief rain shower that washed considerable salt from the aircraft. The attempt to restart the #1 engine succeeded, and Kermit pulled out of its descent just 800 feet above the waves--one minute from impact.

The crew now worked to restart the failed #3 and #4 engines, while the plane slowly climbed away from the ocean surface. As they headed towards Newfoundland, the Canadian Air Force launched a search and rescue C-130 aircraft from Nova Scotia to intercept Kermit. Crews on the Hibernia and Terra Nova oil rigs located east of Newfoundland were alerted of the emergency, and stood by to help if necessary. Kermit's navigator continuously plotted vectors to the oil rigs at they flew home, in case a ditch near one of the rigs became necessary.

As they continued westward, the crew successfully restarted both the #3 and #4 engines, but at reduced power. Kermit climbed to a more comfortable altitude of 14,000 feet and made it uneventfully back to St. Johns. Fortunately, the engines were undamaged and perfectly operational after the salt was washed out, and the data collected during the mission was saved. According to the detailed NOAA Mishap Investigation Report posted on Chris Mooney's excellent blog, "Post flight inspection of engines revealed significant white build up on intakes, first stage compressors, and CIP probes of all four engines. Subjectively, the #2 engine appeared to be the worst coated of all engines. Aircraft fuselage and windows were also heavily coated." Salt build-up on the engines was determined to be the cause of the incident. The unusually dry nature of the storm prevented the salt from being washed off, and was probably part of the reason the engines failed on this flight, and not on previous flights.

I asked Dr. Jim McFadden, project manager of the Ocean Winds project, what happened. He was on the flight, and responded:

This event stumped everyone including the experts who spend a life-time studying sea salt and aerosols in the marine boundary layer. Six previous flights in similar conditions had resulted in nothing like this. But this one was different. It was flown over an ocean warmed by the Gulf Stream in a dry slot of cold Canadian air. Somehow that combination was the key to what could have been a disastrous flight. Fortunately, quick thinking and the flawless action of the crew brought about by excellent training got us home safely.

Last week in Washington D.C., the crew of Kermit was honored with the Department of Commerce's Gold Medal for successfully bringing home the aircraft. The crew members from NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center who were on the flight were:

LCDR Mark Nelson
LCDR Carl Newman
Joseph Klippel
LCDR Peter Siegel
LCDR Joseph Bishop
Tom Shepherd
James Barr
Terry Lynch
William Olney
James McFadden

QuikSCAT scientists Paul Chang and Rob Contreras were also present on the flight.

Separate Department of Commerce Gold and Silver Medals were also awarded last week for scientists involved in leading NOAA's operational use of NASA's QuikSCAT satellite to produce more accurate forecasts and warnings of marine and coastal weather:

Paul Chang
Hugh Cobb III (NWS)
Roger Edson (NWS)
James Franklin (NHC)
Richard Knabb (NHC)
Eugene Legg
Kevin Schrab (NWS)
Joseph Sienkiewicz (NWS)

A Gold Medal is defined as distinguished performance characterized by extraordinary, notable or prestigious contributions that impact the mission of the Department and/or one operating unit and which reflect favorably on the Department. Congratulations to all the awardees, and thanks for all that you do!

Jeff Masters

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455. MisterPerfect
2:57 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Hurricane predictions miss the mark

BY MARTIN MERZER
MiamiHerald.com

Two years ago, way under. Last year, way over. This year, still not right.

It's been a stormy few years for William Gray, Philip Klotzbach and other scientists who predict total hurricane activity before each season begins, which raises fundamental questions as the 2007 season draws to an end on Friday:

Why do they bother? And given the errors -- which can undermine faith in the entire hurricane warning system -- are these full-season forecasts doing more harm than good?

''The seasonal hurricane forecasters certainly have a lot of explaining to do,'' said Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center.

''The last couple of years have humbled the seasonal hurricane forecasters and pointed out that we have a lot more to learn before we can do accurate seasonal forecasts,'' he said.

The numbers provide abundant support for those statements.

Just before the season started on June 1, the nationally prominent Gray-Klotzbach team at Colorado State University predicted that 17 named storms would grow into nine hurricanes, five of which would be particularly intense, with winds above 110 mph.

A different team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted 13 to 17 named storms, seven to 10 hurricanes and three to five intense hurricanes.

The actual results for the 2007 season: 14 named storms, five hurricanes, two intense hurricanes.

That turned a season predicted to be extremely active into one that was about average in number of storms and well below average in total intensity.

Even mid-season corrections issued by both teams in August -- somewhat akin to changing your prediction about a baseball game during the fifth inning -- proved wrong.

Their pre-season predictions in 2005 and 2006 were even worse.

The teams defend their forecasts, saying they are based on the best science available, were closer to the mark in prior years and serve an important public service.

''The seasonal forecasts are quite good,'' said Gerry Bell, NOAA's lead seasonal forecaster. ``Last year, we over-predicted and this year we over-predicted, but our track record, I think, is excellent.''

Klotzbach, who now is the lead forecaster of the Colorado State team created more than two decades ago, said long-range predictions satisfy the public's ``inherent curiosity.''

Both teams employ what they call ''climate signals'' -- a variety of ocean and atmospheric conditions -- along with historical records to produce their forecasts.

''Seasonal forecasts are meant to provide people with the best information possible about how active or inactive the coming season is likely to be,'' Klotzbach said.

Mayfield and virtually all hurricane researchers and forecasters, some of whom were skeptical years ago, now support the issuing of full-season predictions.

But many openly share concerns about the current system, focusing in particular on NOAA's tendency to subtly link the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County to the seasonal forecasts produced by Bell's team, which is based in Maryland.

In fact, it is important to emphasize the distinction between the six-month seasonal forecasts and the real-time forecasts of an actual hurricane or other tropical system, which are called ``operational forecasts.''

Several researchers at the hurricane center worked with Gray and contribute to the data collected by Bell's team, but the center's real-time forecasters play no substantive role in the full-season predictions and are not responsible for them.

CONCERN OVER IMPACT

Many of them worry, however, that substantial errors in those full-season predictions can undermine faith in their generally accurate forecasts of actual storms.

They note that NOAA, parent agency of the hurricane center and Bell's team, often releases Bell's predictions during pre-season news conferences conducted at the hurricane center.

During other years, the hurricane center's director is ordered to participate in the pre-season news conference, wherever it might be held.

''NOAA has been using the good name of the National Hurricane Center, at least to some extent, to help promote the seasonal product and that's not the mission of operational hurricane forecasters,'' Mayfield said.

''In some areas, hurricane forecasters are losing credibility even though they are not the lead on this -- and that's always a concern,'' he said. ``We don't want the credit for the seasonal forecasts.''

Bell said the differences between the two groups should be clear to the public by now. He said South Floridians and other residents of the hurricane zone should never disregard real-time forecasts, especially based on a misconception about the full-season predictions.

''There's no basis for those kinds of comments,'' Bell said, ``especially if they're made by people who don't know what they're talking about.''

Another concern focuses on the hyperactivity of the Gray-Klotzbach team, which issues not one, not two, but six forecasts before and during the season.

The first arrives in early December, forecasting the outcome of a hurricane season that doesn't begin for six months. Maintaining the baseball comparison, that would be like predicting -- this past October -- the Marlins' precise win-loss record in 2008.

''If Gray were honest, he would say they have no skill in making predictions that far in advance,'' said Jeff Masters, a former NOAA hurricane researcher who now serves as chief meteorologist of the Weather Underground. ``It's just an interesting mental exercise.''

Nevertheless, Masters also favors the issuing of seasonal forecasts.

''If you put good science in the hands of people, that's always a benefit,'' he said.

''But they should do a better job of educating the public about the uncertainty involved,'' Masters added. ``And they have to keep underscoring that you have to be prepared in any given year, whatever the forecast.''

That raises another issue.

Virtually everyone involved in the system agrees that seasonal forecasts provide opportunities to remind the public that it must prepare for the worst -- and that certainly works during the current period of generally heightened hurricane activity.

But what happens the next time the data suggest a comparatively mild season? How will the scientists handle that and might that information encourage people to let down their guard?

WHEREVER IT LEADS

The leaders of both teams say they are scientists and will go where the science takes them, regardless of where that might be.

''We believe, and I'm sure NOAA would agree, that people should not relax or pay less attention if we forecast an inactive season,'' Klotzbach said. ``Obviously, storms can make landfall and do major damage in inactive years. Just look at Hurricane Andrew in 1992 as an example of this.''

NOAA does agree.

''People have the right to know if we think it will be an above normal or below normal season,'' Bell said.

''But we always, always, impress on people that we cannot, on seasonal time scales, predict if a given locality is going to get hit, so they have to be ready,'' he said.

And what about the recent tendency to over-predict seasonal activity?

''Forecast activity was too high,'' Bell said. ``But gosh darn it, that's a good thing. We'll take it.''

Audio--NHC Director Ed Rappaport looks back at the 2007 season

Audio-- Max Mayfield discusses his concerns about long-term predictions
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
454. biff4ugo
9:52 AM EST on November 26, 2007
Wow, great gripping story.
And Georga is getting some much needed RAIN!
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451. BajaALemt
8:51 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Good Morning, Storm.

Thunderstorm activity has really quieted down here in the panhandle from what it was in the wee hours
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
448. BajaALemt
8:29 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Morning folks......Mornina flaboy (Hope the reruns were good :P )

I like to refer to the CMC as.......Chicken Little ..hehe
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
447. flaboyinga
09:06 AM EST am 26. November 2007
45. eaglesrock 08:23 AM EST am 26. November 2007
The CMC shows a subtropical storm forming in the Atlantic soon. That crazy model...


Are any of the other models supporting this or did they elect to go where no man has gone before ?
446. flaboyinga
09:03 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Mornin' folks. I hope all of you are well fed and being treated good.
445. eaglesrock
8:22 AM EST on November 26, 2007
The CMC shows a subtropical storm forming in the Atlantic soon. That crazy model...
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444. ShenValleyFlyFish
7:33 AM EST on November 26, 2007
443. Dakster 7:07 AM EST on November 26, 2007
Dr. Masters was quoted, along with Weather Underground, in the Miami Herald this morning... It was about seasonal forecasts.

I'm sure Dr. Masters will elaborate on his blog later today/tomorrow.
Full Article:http://www.miamiherald.com/457/story/320606.html



Good spot Dakster I took the liberty of adding an active link: Link
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443. Dakster
7:05 AM EST on November 26, 2007
Dr. Masters was quoted, along with Weather Underground, in the Miami Herald this morning... It was about seasonal forecasts.

I'm sure Dr. Masters will elaborate on his blog later today/tomorrow.

Full Article:
http://www.miamiherald.com/457/story/320606.html
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441. BajaALemt
11:08 PM CST on November 25, 2007
ok...thanks....sleep well
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
440. flaboyinga
12:04 AM EST on November 26, 2007
Baja, I was looking at the nexrad for P'cola and looking at the storms detail feature below the radar settings area.
439. BajaALemt
11:04 PM CST on November 25, 2007
Nite, flaboy...pleasant reruns
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
438. flaboyinga
11:58 PM EST on November 25, 2007
A good night and a better tomorrow to one and all. I think I'll go watch some reruns on the inside of my eyelids. Later.
437. BajaALemt
11:02 PM CST on November 25, 2007
flaboy? What are you tracking the cells with?
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
436. BajaALemt
10:58 PM CST on November 25, 2007
Lots of lightning in the 'F2' cell...and it just went from a hail flag to a meso flag (very weak)
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
435. BajaALemt
10:56 PM CST on November 25, 2007
LOL...It's kind of fun doing the stuff to our kids that used to drive us nuts when OUR parents did it. I told my son....you'll get your turn to pass it on
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
434. flaboyinga
11:48 PM EST on November 25, 2007
My favorite thing to tell my kids was; Would it not be so if I had not told you so. Sends em up the wall. lol
If you're in Pensacola, you might be getting some hail in the near future. There was one cell on land and one over the gulf that had hail indicated and the one over water was about to hit Pcola.
433. BajaALemt
10:47 PM CST on November 25, 2007
LOL, flaboy...that's cute
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
432. flaboyinga
11:41 PM EST on November 25, 2007
All this reminds me of my old buddy Larry who loved to say; I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.
I'm beginning to get the picture. Hmmm.
431. BajaALemt
10:44 PM CST on November 25, 2007
Nite v2......take care and sleep well
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
430. V26R
4:42 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Im gonna go crash
Seeya Tomorrow

Stay Safe and Good Night!
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
429. V26R
4:39 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Scary what we are truely capable of isn't it FlaB?
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428. BajaALemt
10:38 PM CST on November 25, 2007
;) V2

LOL flaboy...representations of self..I dont think I should think about that looking at SOME of the pics in here
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
427. flaboyinga
11:33 PM EST on November 25, 2007
415. BajaALemt 11:31 PM EST on November 25, 2007
Here ya go, flaboy *winks*

In English, the word has come to mean "an embodiment, a bodily manifestation of the Divine." However, the Sanskrit word Avatara means "the descent of God" or simply "incarnation." The term is used primarily in Hindu texts. For example, Krishna is the eighth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu the Preserver, whom many Hindus worship as God. The Dasavatara are ten particular "great" incarnations of Vishnu.


Ah yes, well that explains how appropriate the use of the term would be in this particular usage. (Hmmm, Did I really type that?)
426. V26R
4:37 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
absolutely nothing!
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
425. BajaALemt
10:36 PM CST on November 25, 2007
Whats wrong with catering to the kid in us? *winks*
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
424. V26R
4:36 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Then again would you expect anything less?
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423. BajaALemt
10:36 PM CST on November 25, 2007
No, I just know how to use google *laffs*
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
422. V26R
4:35 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Kind of shows my mentality doesn't it?
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
421. BajaALemt
10:34 PM CST on November 25, 2007
My son used to watch Nick...I think he quit when he was about 16..so it's been a long time since I'VE seen it...lol
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
420. V26R
4:34 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
WOW Baja You're pretty Sharp!
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419. V26R
4:31 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Well think maybe you should have been alittle more specific then

Actually Avatar is a cartoon on Nick
about either Chinese or Japanese
in the way past with some flying animals
thrown in for good measure
Pretty cool show
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
418. BajaALemt
10:33 PM CST on November 25, 2007
LOL
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
417. BajaALemt
10:31 PM CST on November 25, 2007
And made it way to a picture being a representation of one's self
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
416. flaboyinga
11:30 PM EST on November 25, 2007
413. BajaALemt 11:29 PM EST on November 25, 2007
Ive seen folks stay having said alot worse


I remember seeing some of those and sayin' I wouldn't touch that with a 10 ft pole with a rubber glove on it.LOL
415. BajaALemt
10:30 PM CST on November 25, 2007
Here ya go, flaboy *winks*

In English, the word has come to mean "an embodiment, a bodily manifestation of the Divine." However, the Sanskrit word Avatara means "the descent of God" or simply "incarnation." The term is used primarily in Hindu texts. For example, Krishna is the eighth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu the Preserver, whom many Hindus worship as God. The Dasavatara are ten particular "great" incarnations of Vishnu.
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
414. BajaALemt
10:29 PM CST on November 25, 2007
I dunno...maybe I'll google it *laffs*
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
413. BajaALemt
10:29 PM CST on November 25, 2007
Ive seen folks stay having said alot worse
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
412. flaboyinga
11:27 PM EST on November 25, 2007
Baja, the subject was the egret in your avatar photo. Who in the world came up with a name like avatar.
411. V26R
4:28 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Okay I can see the three of us getting thrown off of here for awhile if this keep up
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
410. BajaALemt
10:27 PM CST on November 25, 2007
I LIKE the way they write...because they talk about things pretty in depth...which makes me go off googling to learn more
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
409. BajaALemt
10:26 PM CST on November 25, 2007
That forecast I posted earlier...from my area...was where I first heard the term "theta-e"...so I had to start researching it...and this guy's site has the theta-e forecasts
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
408. BajaALemt
10:25 PM CST on November 25, 2007
Oh cool. I think it's nice that they guy put that together...and the links all WORK ..lol
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
407. V26R
4:25 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
OKAYYYY
Thats a little mopre personal info than we
needed to know FlaB
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
406. BajaALemt
10:24 PM CST on November 25, 2007
flaboy? Im NOT touchin that *rofl*
Member Since: September 25, 2007 Posts: 53 Comments: 8533
405. V26R
4:21 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Baja that is a REAL NICE all in one site
Figures someone from State College would put
something like together

Grew up not too far from there
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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