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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Residents on the Gulf Coast are well aware of what happens when a hurricane comes ashore. When it reaches land, the storm comes to a violent end.

(Soundbite of wind)

Mr. MIKE HODGE(ph) (Virginia Beach): Lots of wind. Lots of debris. We've just seen the side of the hotel get ripped off. It's real choppy. I see pieces of pier floating all over the place, from the pier getting torn up.

WERTHEIMER: That was Mike Hodge in Virginia Beach describing Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The scene marked the end of Isabel's life.

(Soundbite of waves)

WERTHEIMER: The beginning took place several weeks earlier and several thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. Isabel took shape near the Cape Verde Islands, several hundred miles off the coast of Africa.

The same waters produced Andrew in 1992 and Frances in 2004. Storms from this area are called Cape Verde Hurricanes. They tend to form in the summer and fall, so during this hurricane season a group of scientists spent a month in Cape Verde.

NPR's Jon Hamilton followed them on their quest to learn more about the birth of a hurricane.

JON HAMILTON: Cape Verde is a republic of ten small islands, known for surf, sun and a melancholy style of music that blends the sounds of Portugal and Africa.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HAMILTON: Tourists come to the island of Sal for a quick tan. So it's easy to spot the hurricane scientists at the hotel bar. They're the pasty ones talking about lidar data and mesoscale convective systems.

They don't spend much time on the beach. You're more likely to find them flying over it in a DC-8 airliner that serves as a sort of laboratory with wings.

Ms. ROBBIE HOOD (Scientist, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center): We're skimming the top of the ocean right now.

Unidentified Man #1: It's not too often you see a DC-8 flying this low.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAMILTON: Robbie Hood came from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. She's one of about 30 people on today's flight. Dozens more are working on the ground. They're all part of a NASA mission to learn why some storms evolve into hurricanes.

The NASA team has been stationed in Cape Verde for more than three weeks. They've got only a few days left and Hood says they still need a lot more data.

Ms. HOOD: It's kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. There are certain pieces that we're putting together. And we've got part of the picture of, you know, how a hurricane is developed, but we don't have the complete picture yet.

HAMILTON: Cape Verde hurricanes begin as atmospheric disturbances called easterly waves that appear over Africa. Some of these waves have actually become hurricanes as the trade winds carried them across the Atlantic. Others just disappear. It's not clear why.

Gerry Heymsfield of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland says the wave we're following is typical. He points to a satellite image on his laptop.

Mr. GERRY HEYMSFIELD (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center): This here is just a very big group of thunderstorms. It's maybe 100, 200 miles across.

HAMILTON: The scientists and technicians on board will spend the next seven hours flying in and around those thunderstorms. They'll measure wind sheer, convection, rotation, lightning, rainfall, humidity, even the dust particles swirling about. All of these things may help decide whether a storm grows into a hurricane.

Once the plane reaches altitude, NASA team members unbuckle their seatbelts and spring into action.

Ms. HOOD: Hey, Mike! Mike, come here.

HAMILTON: Hood is scanning satellite images to decide which flight pattern will produce the best picture of the storm.

Ms. HOOD: …but, you know, in these (unintelligible) we're starting to get into the convection more. And there's a little bit of lightning right there. I was wondering if…

HAMILTON: This DC-8 was designed to carry 150 passengers, but many rows of seats have been replaced by racks of equipment. They hold lasers, radars, radiometers, particle collectors and lots of computers. A walk down the aisle lets you visit a dozen meteorology labs in about as many steps. The air is filled with jargon.

Ms. HOOD: My job is running this instrument called a CVI, a counter-flow virtual impactor.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. Plus we were looking at the Saharan dust layer between one…

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Unidentified Man #3: Not a perfect drop, but it's good enough to use.

Unidentified Woman #2: Basically I'm just providing the displays of the (unintelligible) data, the lidar data.

Professor ROBERT PASKEN (Professor of Meteorology, St. Louis University): We've lost the sondes and we've got to go drop another one.

HAMILTON: Near the back of the plane, a bearded man swivels between a computer screen and what looks like a small torpedo tube jutting up through the floor.

Prof. PASKEN: I'm Dr. Robert Pasken from St. Louis University, and I'm an associate professor there.

HAMILTON: Pasken is launching dropsondes. They're cylinders about the size of a model rocket, but jammed with electronics. As they fall, they send back data on atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind direction. Pasken says there's one question on everyone's mind right now

Prof. PASKEN: And the question is will this storm turn into a hurricane? Nobody's ever seen the genesis before, or at least studied it in detail as much as we are.

HAMILTON: Today's storm system is rotating counterclockwise the way a hurricane does. But it's weak and disorganized. Probably not a baby hurricane. So the mood is subdued when the plane finally touches down after dark. The team has just two flights left and they still haven't found what they came for.

The pilot, Bill Brockett, holds a post-flight briefing. He talks about some of the obstacles the crew encountered during the flight.

Mr. BILL BROCKETT (Pilot): Sal is absolutely up to speed, whereas Dakar, they just aren't able to deal with it I think is the problem.

HAMILTON: Brocket says it's not easy to chase a storm system through airspace controlled by several different countries.

Mr. BROCKETT: Well, that's all I have, folks. I guess I'll see you all in the living room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAMILTON: There's just time to make it back to the hotel for dinner. After that, there's a stage show featuring Cape Verdean dancers and a Michael Jackson impersonator. But by that time most of the scientists have gone to grab a few hours sleep.

(Soundbite of waves)

HAMILTON: By noon the next day, the team is airborne again. There's tension on this flight. The mission was put together on a tight budget. Now it's running short on flight time and supplies, and still no baby hurricane. Bob Pasken has started rationing dropsondes.

Prof. PASKEN: We've got 33 sondes left and we have three flights - this one and two others. So rather than try and use them all up on one storm, we're trying something new today.

HAMILTON: Instead of dropping a sonde, the pilot drops the entire plane from 30,000 feet to 500 feet. There's turbulence, coffee spills, scientists lurch around the cabin, backpacks and briefcases have to be tied down. About four hours into the flight, Robbie Hood decides this storm system just isn't worth it. She orders an early return.

Ms. HOOD: This will probably be the last day that we work this storm because the forecast is showing something bigger coming off the coast in a few days. And that'll probably be our last case of this mission.

HAMILTON: Back on the ground, Hood explains why missions like this one are important. For one thing, they're a way to improve hurricane forecasting in the U.S. But the biggest payoff may be in countries that are less prepared for powerful storms. Hood says people in the states tend to think of 2005 only in terms of Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. HOOD: But also there was Hurricane Stan last year that flared up on the eastern side of the Yucatan. It flared up very quickly, moved inland to Guatemala. And actually I think officially the hurricane itself, the death toll may have been 80 but there was close to 800 to 1,000 people who were covered in mudslides because of the heavy rain.

HAMILTON: Hood says if scientists can learn to spot Cape Verde hurricanes sooner, that could give people in places like Guatemala more time to prepare.

On their last flight of the mission, Hood and the rest of the team finally got what they came for. They followed a baby storm system that went on to become a hurricane named Helene.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: In a dramatic satellite-eye view, you can watch a hurricane from its birth to its violent end at npr.org.

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