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Underwater gliders could improve hurricane predictions

Leeanna McLean
Digital Reporter

Thursday, September 22, 2016, 4:36 PM - As Hermine barreled up the U.S. East Coast, several underwater gliders were deployed to collect data and while it may take months to analyze, scientists say this technology could significantly improve hurricane forecasting, which could ultimately save lives and property.

Over the past several years, NOAA has worked in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to develop and deploy the remotely controlled gliders during the hurricane season. They are designed to delve into the heart of a storm where they then feed real-time information via satellite to scientists.

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"Hurricanes are difficult to forecast because we rely on weather data that is in part based on information from weather stations," says The Weather Network's manager of meteorological briefing Dayna Vettese. "There are far fewer weather stations (buoys) over the oceans than weather stations on land, so forecasters have to work with more sparse data. We also don't tend to have real-time data when hurricanes are over the water unless there are buoys or aircraft. These gliders help us to have real-time data, which helps forecasters."

Funded by NOAA's office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, the program has been running for three years.

During Hermine, WHOI scientists deployed several gliders about 160 km offshore of Massachusetts along the continental shelf where they dropped 100 to 300 feet and measured things like water temperature, salinity and storm density, which the traditional aircraft approach cannot do.

WHOI engineers Sean Whelan (left) and Patrick Deane (right) release a Slocum glider into the water south of Martha's Vineyard on Sept. 2, 2016, to monitor anticipated changes in the ocean during of the passage of hurricane/tropical storm Hermine. Image provided by WHOI.

While Hermine was a weak hurricane and had been downgraded to a tropical storm before it reached waters along the Atlantic Seaboard, it moved slowly off the New England coast, which provided ample time to gather data. 

The gliders currently remain out to sea, collecting post-storm data that will help researchers predict future weather patterns.

Scientists say it may take months to analyze the data, however, they are excited as there are many questions still unanswered. For example, Hermine drifted father west than originally anticipated and data collected could explain why.

"When Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey and New York, we had a pretty good idea of where the storm was headed in advance, we just didn't know how strong they'd be when they made landfall," WHOI physical oceanographer Glen Gawarkiewicz said in a news release. "One of the reasons it's so hard to forecast is that intensity depends on sea-surface conditions directly ahead of and below the storm. Gliders and other instruments we are testing enable us, for the first time ever, to make measurements in these very harsh conditions."


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