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Scientists to use drones to study hurricane formation

GULF OF MEXICO — The federal government is preparing to launch a study to solve one of the most vexing questions about hurricanes: Why do some storm systems rapidly intensify into destructive cyclones, while most remain weak?

Starting this week, a squadron of manned and unmanned aircraft is poised to investigate an intriguing theory that one leading researcher has likened to a kangaroo’s pouch — the pocket where the animal’s offspring develop.

Michael Montgomery, the lead investigator and a meteorology professor at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School, said researchers believe there are pockets or “pouches” within a storm system that somehow nurture a hurricane’s development.

If it exists, the pouch, or column of air, would be hidden from space-based weather satellites, which take visual and heat readings, but cannot see deep inside a storm.

Where nine out of 10 thunderstorm systems never coalesce into a hurricane, those pockets may help answer why the 10th storm becomes a monster.

“We basically invoke an analogy from biology.” Montgomery said as he flashed an image of a kangaroo on a screen Wednesday at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

The theory suggests that such regions, or pouches, can be detected by sampling areas that otherwise wouldn’t ever be scanned by hurricane hunter planes, or by technology that weather satellites lack, Montgomery said.

The combined fleet of manned aircraft and unmanned high-altitude surveillance drones, able to drop probes deep into the clouds, will be able to send back a real-time, wide-ranging image of an entire storm system, not just observations from a single plane or distant satellite.

“The reason we’re sampling the whole domain with this many aircraft is that we can get a better idea of what these embryonic systems look like, said Frank Marks, the director of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division.

The research is being driven by forecasters’ inability to make good predictions about when storms will rapidly strengthen.

“Ninety percent of the time, we simply don’t catch the rapid intensification,” said Bill Read, director of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. “You miss the fact that it goes up 40 or 50 miles-per-hour in a 24-hour time frame.”

Forecasters have made steady progress on predicting where a storm will go, but it’s critical for the public and emergency managers to know how likely a storm is to intensify, Read said.

New to the data collection effort this year is the Global Hawk, a high-altitude, jet-powered unmanned surveillance drone about the size of a corporate jet. It’s used by the military to do reconnaissance in Afghanistan and Iraq. The aircraft — given to NASA by the Air Force — will launch missions from Dryden, Calif., fly over the U.S.-Mexico border, and then into the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike a piloted craft, which must return to land so the crew can rest, it can spend 24 hours on station, Marks said.

While forecasters are hoping to catch a storm in formation, they know that most won’t.

“We’re going to sample a lot of duds,” he said.

Still, researchers believe that even knowing what weather systems are “duds” is worthwhile, if it leads to more accurate forecasts.

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