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NOAA Has A Secret Weapon In The ‘War’ For More Information on Storms


NASA Global Hawk
NASA Global Hawk is controlled by a pilot remotely.

FREDERIKSTED – With this week’s arrival of Tropical Storm Erika, the folks at NOAA saw an opportunity to put the NASA Global Hawk unmanned aircraft into action to improve information gathering on severe weather.

Scientists and pilots are now ready to start the NOAA-led mission to improve hurricane forecasts of track and intensity using data collected by the Global Hawk during the passing of Erika through the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

The Global Hawk landed last week at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia, where NOAA will work with NASA scientists on the mission called Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology, or SHOUT.

The mission builds on earlier collaborative research led by NASA and will move the Global Hawk closer to being put into operational use as a weather forecast observations tool. The Global Hawk has now been deployed to the Caribbean region with the advent of Tropical Storm Erika.

“We’re flying the Global Hawk above hurricanes and other severe storms to refine it as a new, powerful tool with the potential to contribute to better forecasts of where hurricanes go and how intense they are,” said Robbie Hood, director of NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Program. “The mission is part of NOAA’s work to improve our nation’s preparedness and resilience to hurricanes and other severe storms.”

From now until the end of September, pilots and scientists from NOAA, NASA and partners will direct a series of Global Hawk flights out over the Atlantic Ocean basin to collect data on temperature, moisture, wind speed and direction. The real time data will go into National Weather Service forecast models for use by the National Hurricane Center.

“The Global Hawk allows us to stay over these weather patterns a greater amount of time than manned aircraft,” said Gary Wick, NOAA’s lead scientist for the mission. “It provides us with an observing tool that has the endurance of a satellite but provides finer resolution data and the precision of an aircraft.”

The Global Hawk is not expected to replace flights by the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters based in St. Croix.

The Global Hawk is equipped with instruments to profile the inner workings of storms, including:

  • Dropsondes developed by NOAA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research that are released from the aircraft to profile temperature, pressure, wind speed and direction
  • NASA-developed radar designed to measure precipitation and wind speed
  • Microwave sounder from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to take vertical profiles of temperature and humidity
  • A NASA lighting instrument package to measure the electric field of thunderstorms.

This season, scientists will also test whether the data from the Global Hawk can help replace data collected by satellites in the unlikely event that a satellite goes down.

“We’re hopeful that won’t occur, but we need to evaluate all options,” said Wick.

The Global Hawk, managed by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, provides a unique vantage point for weather observations because it flies higher and longer than any manned aircraft. It allows data collection from 60,000 feet, an altitude nearly 20,000 feet higher than manned aircraft, to the ocean surface. It can gather weather data continuously for up to 24 hours.

SHOUT is funded in part by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, passed by Congress in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Sandy.

For more information on SHOUT go to:

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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