Hurricane Hunters rely on high-tech to track storms, but will a lack of funds and aging satellites hamper their brave efforts?

Hurricane Hunters rely on high-tech to track storms, but will a lack of funds and aging satellites hamper their brave efforts?

Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy swept through New York and New Jersey on its damaging path from the Caribbean up the Atlantic Coast, leaving at least 182 people dead and wreaking $65 billion in damage in the U.S., according to the Associated Press.

Environmental writer Kathryn Miles has documented the events leading up to hurricane’s destructive path in her new book “Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy.” As devastating as the natural disaster was, it may have been much worse had it not been for the crucial meteorological information gathered by an elite group of Air Force reservists known as the Hurricane Hunters. A mix of military fighter pilots and meteorologists, they fly into the center of the storm in high-tech WC-130J airplanes and relay wind information back to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Miles, who was recently in New Jersey promoting her book, spoke with Not Impossible Now about these brave airmen and the important work they do to forecast the track of hurricanes. She also spoke about how financial cutbacks will affect that and other important hurricane detection efforts.

NIN: What did you discover about the Hurricane Hunters in your research?

Kathryn: These guys are the real superheroes of meteorology. Hurricane Hunters have a long history that goes back decades. They became a bona fide part of the military not long after World War II, and have consistently provided the information that NOAA needs. A team of five (two pilots, a navigator and a meteorologist) will go out when the National Hurricane Center (NHC) calls them. The reason for that is because the technology that the NHC uses is really quite limited in terms of its ability to detect wind. When a system starts to form, usually in the Caribbean, they can tell that it’s starting to circulate but they can’t tell how strong the winds are. They can’t make the distinction between a 200 mph wind and a 50 mph wind. For the NHC to know if it’s a hurricane, let alone what level of a hurricane it is, they literally have to send human beings into the storm.

Hurricane Hunters conduct missions in high-tech WC-130J planes like the one pictured above from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. This file photo was taken on July 28, 2013. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Ryan Labadens)

Hurricane Hunters conduct missions in high-tech WC-130J planes like the one pictured above from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. This file photo was taken on July 28, 2013. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Ryan Labadens)

The Hurricane Hunters go on a hunting mission to figure out the four winds. To prove that it’s a closed system that’s fully circulating, they need to go in and find winds that are blowing in all four cardinal directions. To do that, they use two major pieces of technology. The first is called a Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer (smurf, for short), and it sits on the wing of the plane. It’s a very sophisticated tool that records these winds as the plane flies through. They need to be where the strongest winds are, which makes it an incredibly risky job.

The second piece of technology that they use is called dropsonde. It’s a cardboard tube that looks like a toilet paper roll. They have what’s called a loadmaster whose job is to drop this tube out of the airplane, and as it falls from the sky it reads barometric pressure, wind speed, temperature and moisture. It records the data and sends it back to NHC. The head of the NHC told me that since they started using these devices, their forecasts have improved more than 30 percent, which in meteorological language is enormous.

How far back had they used them?

Kathryn: They’ve been using them for quite some time and they’ve been improving them in the last decade. The head of the group, a man named John Talbot, designed the smurf (which was first used in 2007). Before that, they were using more primitive devices.

Has the technology improved since Sandy?

Kathryn: This is where the funding crisis and what I call the infrastructure crisis that is our meteorological system comes into play. The Hurricane Hunters for years were their own branch of the Air Force. The U.S. government folded the agency altogether about 15 years ago. Right away, NOAA was like, “Wait! We cannot do our job without these guys.” So Congress agreed to bring them back, but they brought them back as a reserve unit (based at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. There also is NOAA unit based in Tampa, Fla.). These guys are doing lots of other jobs, though. What’s happening is there is next to no funds for research and development. We’ve made it such that they can’t do the improvements and advancements that they certainly have the capability to do if they only had the time and resources.

Are there estimates of how many lives the Hurricane Hunters have protected?

Kathryn: I’ve never seen it quantified in terms of lives saved. But that 30 percent improvement rate number is what the NHC and NOAA point to. The forecast error rate grows exponentially. So if on day one I’m 50 miles off of where I think the storm is going to go, by the time its day five, I could be 500 miles off. That’s why the accuracy at the start is so very crucial. That’s why the Hurricane Hunters are so important. They’re the only ones who are able to tell us in real time what’s actually happening in the storm. They go in and say, “The winds have reached this level,” and that effects everything from our emergency management plans or warning systems and it affects things that you wouldn’t expect like insurance disbursements after a storm.

Meteorologically speaking, are we prepared for another Hurricane Sandy?

Kathryn: Our national weather program is in crisis. One of the most pressing problems that we have is a satellite crisis. We use two different types of satellites to forecast the weather. We use geostationary satellites and polar orbiting satellites. Both programs were recently pushed on the GAO watch list.

It’s particularly dire for these polar orbiting satellites, which we use for long-term forecasting and the weather models used to predict storms. We have two satellites that are well beyond their life expectancy. One of them was never even intended to be a functioning satellite. It was designed as a test model. It’s going to be another two years before the first replacement satellite is going to go up, and there’s a good chance it will blow up on launch or die right away. Its replacement satellite won’t be ready until 2024. So we could conceivably be in a satellite gap that’s anywhere from two years to seven years. Without that long-range data, even the best information that the Hurricane Hunters gather won’t really help us as much as we need when it comes to three-day and five-day forecasts.  

Learn more about Kathryn Miles and her new book “Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy” at her website

Top photo caption: The Jet Star roller coaster in Seaside Heights, N.J., fell into the Atlantic Ocean after Hurricane Sandy struck on October 29, 2012. This photo was taken on December 5, 2012. (Photo credit: iStock/JanaShea) 

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that today is the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.