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Hurricane research flights grounded

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:24 PM GMT on February 08, 2007

For the first time since NOAA began flying research aircraft into hurricane in the 1950's, there is no money to fund airborne hurricane research for an upcoming hurricane season. NOAA's state-of-the-art flying weather research laboratories, the two P-3 Orion hurricane hunter aircraft, may sit idle this hurricane season due to a lack of funding. NOAA's Hurricane Research Division (HRD) usually receives several million dollars each year to perform hurricane research using the P-3's. However, funding for HRD has steadily declined over the past decade, forcing HRD to reduce staff and cut back on hurricane research. Now, this key form of hurricane research has been zeroed out by NOAA. It is possible that the National Science Foundation will step in and fund one P-3 research project, though--there is interest in taking real-time P-3 Doppler radar data and putting it into one of NOAA's experimental hurricane research computer models (the HWRF model). It is also possible that if the President's newly-proposed budget gets approved (which contains an extra $2 million in funding for hurricane intensity research), some of that money will go towards keeping the P-3s flying. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) does have money to keep the P-3s flying this year, but not for reasearch projects. Flights done for NHC would be strictly operational--one altitude, one airplane at a time, with the intent of providing center fixes and surface winds estimates. HRD scientists would be allowed to take research data, but would not be able to fly both P-3s at once, or do custom flight patterns to use the P-3s' Doppler radar and other advanced instrumentation to gather state-of-the-art research data. No follow-up work on last years promising field study that examined the effect of African dust on suppressing hurricane activity will be performed. And with the Air Force C-130 hurricane hunters receiving the advanced SFMR surface wind measuring instrument this year, it is questionable how much flying time the P-3s will get from NHC.

NOAA's P-3 hurricane hunter research aircraft. Image credit: NOAA/AOC.

With zero money allocated to fund one of the most important types of hurricane research, one has to wonder--what are NOAA and Congress thinking? While improvements in computer models, better satellite data over oceanic regions, and better forecasting techniques are primarily responsible for the 43% improvement in hurricane track forecasts in the past 15 years, research flights performed by the P-3s are also a big reason. For example, the now routine flights by the NOAA high-altitude jet to sample the large-scale environment around a hurricane improves tracks forecasts by perhaps 20% on its own, when it flies. This advancement grew out of a multi-year research project conducted by the P-3s in the 1980s and 1990s. Continued hurricane research by aircraft is essential if we are to continue improving track forecasts, and do a better job at forecasting intensity--which has only improved 17% in the past 15 years. The National Science Board, in a report issued September 29, 2006, called for an increase of $300 million per year in hurricane research funding. The National Hurricane Research Initiative Act, was introduced in the Senate in September to fully fund the National Science Board's recommendations. I presented a long report on these initiatives in a blog in October.

Given the huge return on our investment the NOAA P-3s have already paid, and the critical need to improve our understanding of hurricanes, it is imperative that we not let NOAA's hurricane research aircraft sit idle. It's like signing Roger Clemens to get you to the World Series, then deciding to use him just to pitch batting practice. I urge you to write your Representatives to approve more funding for hurricane research, and ask your Senators to support S. 4005, the National Hurricane Research Initiative Act of 2006. The act is co-sponsored by all four of Louisiana and Florida's senators. When the bill comes before committee or the full Senate, I will be sure to post a follow-up blog urging you to write your Senators again.

My next blog will be Monday.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.