NASA Weather Drones Launched To Study Hurricanes And Help Improve Storm Forecasting

on September 11, 2013 5:05 PM EDT

drone
NASA weather drones will explore the Saharan Air Layer and the role of thunderstorms in hurricanes. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

NASA has enlisted the help of former military surveillance drones to fight against extreme weather like hurricanes. The NASA weather drones will help better understand how storms intensify. The drones would also help the government predict whether to evacuate an area in a hurricane's path.

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"The biggest scientific question we're trying to attack is why do some hurricanes intensify very rapidly and why do others not intensify at all? In the last 20 years, we've made terrific progress in forecasting where hurricane tracks will go," said Paul Newman, deputy project scientist for the NASA research mission. "But we've made almost no progress in the past 20 years in forecasting intensity."

NASA is trying to answer to two primary questions with the two weather drones. The first is what role thunderstorms play in the intensification of hurricanes. Scientists currently aren't sure the role of thunderstorms in hurricanes: do they make a hurricane more intense, or are thunderstorms simply the result of a hurricane?

The second question revolves around the Saharan Air Layer, a hot, dusty, dry layer of air from Africa. As with thunderstorms in hurricanes, scientists aren't quite sure about the role of the Saharan Air Layer in tropical storms. Does it strengthen hurricanes, or does it weaken them? Perhaps the NASA weather drones will settle this issue, which has cause so many meteorologist bar fights, once and for all.

The unmanned NASA weather drones are Global Hawk aircrafts, which are used to perform intelligence missions for the Air Force. The two Global Hawks that  NASA is using are from the developmental phase of the drone. NASA launched one of the weather drones yesterday morning from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops, Va., the same site of last week's LADEE lunar probe launch. The drone is headed for the coast of Africa to check out a dust storm there.  

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