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Studying Storms: NASA Looks For Hurricane's Secrets
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Studying Storms: NASA Looks For Hurricane's Secrets

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Studying Storms: NASA Looks For Hurricane's Secrets

Studying Storms: NASA Looks For Hurricane's Secrets
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130028135/130180389" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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  • Sept. 13, 1:45 P.M. EDTThe GOES-13 satellite, which monitors the eastern U.S. and the Caribbean Sea, captured this bow-shaped system of clouds, called System 92L, which dumped heavy rains on Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba. Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
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    Sept. 13, 1:45 P.M. EDTThe GOES-13 satellite, which monitors the eastern U.S. and the Caribbean Sea, captured this bow-shaped system of clouds, called System 92L, which dumped heavy rains on Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba. Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
  • Sept. 14, 2:19 A.M. EDTThe Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite measures heavy rainfall of 2 inches per hour around the storm's center (red spot). Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce
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    Sept. 14, 2:19 A.M. EDTThe Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite measures heavy rainfall of 2 inches per hour around the storm's center (red spot). Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce
  • Sept. 14, 9:40 A.M. EDTSystem 92L takes on qualities of a tropical depression, including a characteristic comma shape and outer cloud bands developing around a center. The storm moved in the northwest direction across the central Caribbean and was roughly 90 miles in diameter at 8 a.m.Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
    Hide caption
    Sept. 14, 9:40 A.M. EDTSystem 92L takes on qualities of a tropical depression, including a characteristic comma shape and outer cloud bands developing around a center. The storm moved in the northwest direction across the central Caribbean and was roughly 90 miles in diameter at 8 a.m.Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
  • Sept. 14, 3:05 P.M. EDTSystem 92L becomes Tropical Storm Karl. The storm fails to weaken as it makes landfall on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.  It then intensifies rapidly as soon as it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.Credit: NASA Goddard/MODIS Rapid Response Team
    Hide caption
    Sept. 14, 3:05 P.M. EDTSystem 92L becomes Tropical Storm Karl. The storm fails to weaken as it makes landfall on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It then intensifies rapidly as soon as it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.Credit: NASA Goddard/MODIS Rapid Response Team
  • Sept. 15, 10:45 A.M. EDTTropical Storm Karl isn't the only active tropical cyclone: Hurricanes Igor (center) and Julia are also spinning in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
    Hide caption
    Sept. 15, 10:45 A.M. EDTTropical Storm Karl isn't the only active tropical cyclone: Hurricanes Igor (center) and Julia are also spinning in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
  • Sept. 15, 5:53 P.M. EDTAs the center of Tropical Storm Karl traverses the Yucatan Peninsula, it continues dumping rain at a rate of 2 inches per hour (dark red).Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce
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    Sept. 15, 5:53 P.M. EDTAs the center of Tropical Storm Karl traverses the Yucatan Peninsula, it continues dumping rain at a rate of 2 inches per hour (dark red).Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce
  • Sept. 16, 2:03 A.M. EDTAs the storm moves into the Gulf of Mexico, the TRMM satellite captures slightly lighter rainfall rates, between 0.78 and 1.57 inches per hour (green and yellow).Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce
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    Sept. 16, 2:03 A.M. EDTAs the storm moves into the Gulf of Mexico, the TRMM satellite captures slightly lighter rainfall rates, between 0.78 and 1.57 inches per hour (green and yellow).Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce
  • Sept. 17, 3:35 P.M. EDTAt the time of this image, now-Hurricane Karl  was about two-thirds over land. It made landfall near Veracruz, Mexico, and the rugged terrain quickly reduced the storm's energy. With maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, Karl clocked in at a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Credit: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team
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    Sept. 17, 3:35 P.M. EDTAt the time of this image, now-Hurricane Karl was about two-thirds over land. It made landfall near Veracruz, Mexico, and the rugged terrain quickly reduced the storm's energy. With maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, Karl clocked in at a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Credit: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team
  • Sept. 17, 4:10 P.M. EDTNASA was closely studying this storm and dispatched two research aircraft, a DC-8 and a WB-57. This chart shows their flight paths as of Friday afternoon. Credit: NASA
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    Sept. 17, 4:10 P.M. EDTNASA was closely studying this storm and dispatched two research aircraft, a DC-8 and a WB-57. This chart shows their flight paths as of Friday afternoon. Credit: NASA

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When Hurricane Karl slammed into Veracruz, Mexico, earlier this month, dozens of scientists had a ringside seat. They were aboard a NASA DC-8 that serves as a flying laboratory for studying hurricanes.

The purpose of the flight was to get a better understanding of why some hurricanes weaken unexpectedly while others suddenly become monster storms. That's important because even though forecasters have become good at predicting where hurricanes will go, they aren't so good at predicting how strong a hurricane will be when it arrives, says Ed Zipser, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah.

Ed Zipser from the University of Utah makes adjustments to the day's flight plan.

Ed Zipser from the University of Utah adjusts the flight plan aboard the NASA DC-8 studying Hurricane Karl. Zipser and other scientists flew patterns over the storm to gather data to learn why some storms gain strength while others weaken. Jon Hamilton/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jon Hamilton/NPR

"We don't do as good a job because we don't completely understand the process," Zipser says.

So Zipser and other scientists have been taking part in a NASA experiment called Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP). For more than a month, they have been gathering data on storms in the Atlantic, hoping they will eventually find clues to explain why some weather disturbances become hurricanes and why some hurricanes suddenly grow stronger.

An Ideal Storm To Study

The GRIP scientists had been studying Karl since it appeared as a weather disturbance in the Caribbean. On the day the storm was expected to hit Mexico, Zipser and many of his colleagues boarded the DC-8 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to gather one last day's worth of data.

For the first couple of hours after takeoff, the scientists onboard studied weather maps and checked their instruments, which are bolted to the cabin floor in spaces usually occupied by rows of seats. The equipment includes devices that sample the outside air for particles and laser beams to measure the height of cloud tops.

A map showing the rainfall, intensity and path of Hurricane Karl i

This chart from the NASA Earth Observatory shows the path and intensity of Hurricane Karl and the rainfall it dumped between Sept. 14 and Sept. 18 as it crossed over the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico. The storm peaked at a Category 3 as it neared the inland Mexican coast, and the heaviest rains fell there (blue). NASA Earth Observatory hide caption

toggle caption NASA Earth Observatory
A map showing the rainfall, intensity and path of Hurricane Karl

This chart from the NASA Earth Observatory shows the path and intensity of Hurricane Karl and the rainfall it dumped between Sept. 14 and Sept. 18 as it crossed over the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico. The storm peaked at a Category 3 as it neared the inland Mexican coast, and the heaviest rains fell there (blue).

NASA Earth Observatory

Robert Pasken, a meteorologist from St. Louis University, checks the dropsondes he will launch through a hole in the belly of the plane. The dropsondes will transmit information about winds, temperature, humidity and pressure as they parachute toward the ocean.

Karl is an ideal storm to study because it has consistently defied predictions, Pasken says.

"It looked like it was beginning to spin up — nothing happened," he says. "Next day, it looked like it was going to spin up — nothing happened. And then all of a sudden it did spin up."

Karl was getting stronger fast when it ran into the Yucatan Peninsula. Usually, crossing such a big piece of land would severely weaken a tropical storm. But that didn't happen with Karl, says Michael Black from the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So when it emerged in the Gulf of Mexico, Mexican officials were suddenly facing a much bigger hurricane than they'd expected, he says.

Bob Pasken from Saint Louis University shows the contents of a dropsonde.

Bob Pasken from Saint Louis University prepares to release a dropsonde into Hurricane Karl while flying above it. The devices relay crucial data about winds, temperature, humidity and pressure back to researchers. Jon Hamilton/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jon Hamilton/NPR

"You've got a storm that a day ago was barely a hurricane and turned into a Category 3 in a matter of about 18 hours," Black says. "That's a huge difference in preparation and plans when you've got a hurricane bearing down on you."

By the time the plane reached Karl, part of the eyewall was already over land. So the scientists worked quickly. They start launching dropsondes and begin pulling data from onboard radars, which will reveal things that aren't visible from a satellite, Black says.

"You could view those as sort of a CAT scan of the storm," he says. "We'll be able to peer in and look at the structures of rainfall and winds within the storm."

Factors In Storm Strength

Researchers have known for years that factors such as water temperature and prevailing winds affect a storm's strength. But they've also learned that these factors alone don't explain why storms like Karl sometimes intensify so rapidly.

One missing element may be clouds known as hot towers that can carry hot moist air through the high layer of cirrus clouds that form above a hurricane. For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out how they are involved in rapid intensification.

Hot towers are usually hard to study because they go so high. But Black says that hasn't been a problem during this experiment, thanks to a new unmanned plane known as the Global Hawk.

"That aircraft is flying about 60,000 feet," he says. "They get a very clear view plus very detailed measurements with their radars onboard of these hot towers that will pop up."

Four other aircraft have also been involved in studying Karl.

A section of Hurricane Karl from NASA's CloudSat satellite i

A slice of Hurricane Karl was captured by NASA's CloudSat satellite. The clouds were just over 8 miles high. hide caption

toggle caption
A section of Hurricane Karl from NASA's CloudSat satellite

A slice of Hurricane Karl was captured by NASA's CloudSat satellite. The clouds were just over 8 miles high.

As the DC-8 follows Karl inland, the scientists try to figure out how bad things are on the ground. Ed Zipser hunches over his laptop, which is showing an area about 100 miles from the coast where the storm is colliding with 10,000-foot mountains.

"As the winds blow this moist air up the mountain, we don't have any idea if it's going to be a beneficial rain or a disastrous rain," he says.

The plane's radar expert, Simone Tanelli from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, says he's worried by the intensity of rain he's seen in one small area near the foot of the mountains.

"It was coming down more rain than what you can imagine," he says. "And the nasty thing, the thing that scares me a little bit, is that we have two shots one hour apart, and in both shots I see the same thing. If for one hour it kept raining like that, those people must be under a meter of water."

Ground measurements would show that some places were getting as much as an inch of rain every 10 minutes.

In the end, Karl killed at least 16 people and caused billions of dollars of damage.

But scientists say they are pretty sure they will learn something from this storm — and the other ones they've studied in the past few weeks. And that could mean they'll be able to warn people earlier about the next Karl.

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