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NM Tech team flies into storms

Pilot Boden LeMay and New Mexico Tech professor Zeljka Fuchs-Stone discuss flight instructions before flying into a storm. (Courtesy of Zeljka Fuchs-Stone/New Mexico Tech)

Pilot Boden LeMay and New Mexico Tech professor Zeljka Fuchs-Stone discuss flight instructions before flying into a storm. (Courtesy of Zeljka Fuchs-Stone/New Mexico Tech)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

As Hurricane Dorian churns off the East Coast, threatening the Carolinas, a group of New Mexico Tech professors and students are focusing on the tropical storms that may form in the next few days in the Caribbean or off the Central American coast in the Pacific.

And they aren’t sitting around watching the Weather Channel or checking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website looking for information.

Since early August, they’ve been hopping on planes – sometimes with hurricane hunters – and flying into tropical depressions and tropical storms to learn more about how hurricanes form.

“Our team is not directly involved in studying Dorian by flying into it, but our friends, the NOAA hurricane hunters that we flew with two weeks ago, are,” said Zeljka Fuchs-Stone, research professor and director of New Mexico Tech’s Climate and Water Consortium. “They have flown into Dorian seven days in a row, sometimes twice a day.”

New Mexico Tech Professor Zeljka Fuchs-Stone leads an open house aboard a plane used by researchers from New Mexico Tech and other universities to fly into storms to study the formation of hurricanes. (Courtesy of Zeljka Fuchs-Stone/New Mexico Tech)

New Mexico Tech Professor Zeljka Fuchs-Stone leads an open house aboard a plane used by researchers from New Mexico Tech and other universities to fly into storms to study the formation of hurricanes. (Courtesy of Zeljka Fuchs-Stone/New Mexico Tech)

Fuchs-Stone and Tech Professor Emeritus Dave Raymond have been leading a team of more than 30 researchers on the two-month Organization of Tropical East Pacific Convection project in Costa Rica, far away from the Socorro campus.

“We got lucky as the Atlantic was calm before Dorian, and we flew with them (hurricane hunters) for several days into a developing Tropical Storm Ivo in the eastern Pacific,” she said.

By the end of the month, the team – which consists of researchers and students from the U.S., Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia and the UK – hopes to have made 21 flights into storms off both coasts of Central America. As of Wednesday, they had flown 11.

“We are studying storms. But not only storms that fully develop, but the ones that are just forming,” Fuchs-Stone said. “We still don’t understand why one storm becomes a hurricane and the other one doesn’t. Or why do we have an impressive storm on one day and not the other if all other conditions are the same. Figuring that out will help figure out the forecast of the hurricanes as well.”

She said the researchers usually fly two days in a row in a Gulfstream V, a plane that takes them as high as 47,000 feet. They usually spend about six hours in the air.

“The hurricane hunters fly on a plane called a P-3 that goes up to 20,000 feet but is equipped with excellent radars that enable them to search for the circulation of the storm in 3-D,” Fuchs-Stone said. They launch from two sites in Costa Rica and one site in Colombia.

During the flights, researchers drop instruments called sondes into the storms. They collect data on temperature, humidity, pressure and winds. Team members who aren’t flying will sometimes launch balloons every two hours to collect data in the area of the flight. The data is sent directly into the Global Telecommunication System, which means every agency that is running weather models has access to the data.

“The data that we collect is being sent to weather models in real time,” she said. “That means within an hour or so. … The preliminary results are showing that our data is making a big difference in the forecast.”

The data collected by the team and hurricane hunters “will go a long way in figuring out what we are missing in the weather models and how we can improve them,” Fuchs-Stone said. “The more data we have, the better the forecast. The more data we have, the better understanding of physics we will have. And we will be able to improve the weather and climate models that save lives in extreme events like Dorian.”

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