Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the weekly weather newsletter, the CNN Weather Brief, which is released every Monday. You can sign up here to receive them every week and during significant storms.
NOAA’s hurricane hunters, famous for flying into the world’s most ferocious weather, have a job which is not for the faint of heart, often being tossed in severe turbulence while flying at a mere 10,000 feet.
Now, the hurricane hunters have raised the bar, entering new territory. Literally.
“We’re taking the aircraft to a place we’ve never done before,” noted Dr. Jason Dunion, a meteorologist for NOAA’s research division and lead scientist for the new mission.
“I look at the flight we just had as trailblazing,” he emphasized. “We’ve never taken the NOAA hurricane hunters out that far east. We’ve kind of opened the door to trying and doing more science out there.”
Up until now, hurricane hunters had only flown into storms about midway across the Atlantic to investigate.
But last month, for the first time ever, the NOAA hurricane hunters “hunted” a potential storm all the way across the Atlantic, near the Cape Verde Islands, August 9-12 on a groundbreaking mission.
“We see a lot of our hurricanes coming from a nursery over Africa,” Dunion explained. “It’s just south of the Sahara Desert, and little tropical disturbances come out of that nursery, and they account for over half the named storms that we see in the Atlantic and about 80% to 85% of the major hurricanes that we see.”
West Africa is a hurricane ‘nursery’
The ‘nursery’ is the breeding ground for hurricanes. Studying storms before they form will greatly improve forecasts, by determining early on which storms will form and which ones will fizzle.
The data they gather will show why storms track a certain way, why some intensify while others weaken, and which ones are worth obsessing over for more than a week as they make the long journey across the Atlantic.
“The benefit of working from Cape Verde is we can get more observations of what’s actually happening in the atmosphere earlier, so that the forecast models have the best information available to make the best possible forecasts,” outlined Capt. Jason Mansour, the project’s aircraft commander.
He was one of the nine-member crew, alongside Dunion, and flying into hurricanes is nothing new for either. They have experienced some of the worst weather on Earth. Dunion recalled his experience while flying into Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
“That was when it was intensifying from a Category 5 to a Category 5+. I felt like a feather in the wind that day,” Dunion recalled, adding, “I think we had about three to four G forces. That’s something that someone who’s getting launched into space would feel.”
The mission in August was different. The crew wasn’t facing a Category 5 storm bearing down on the US, but the science behind the mission could be just as powerful.
Studying storms before they form near Africa, to better forecast closer to home
“Stuff that we do is about national security. It’s about making sure that the public knows, ‘Am I at risk? Do I have to evacuate?’ And that’s what NOAA, the United States science agency, specializes in,” Monsour stressed. “Making sure we have the best possible data, so the best possible decisions can be made.”
Data gathered from the tropical waves will be input into computer models used to forecast storms. Right now, the forecast is much more reliable until about five days out. Further out, it’s not.
If real-time data can be put into the computer models, when the storm is on the opposite side of the Atlantic, the models have much less ‘guessing’ to do and could initialize the storm properly.
Right now, forecast models basically guess where the center of the storm is until hurricane hunter aircraft can fly inside it to pinpoint where exactly the center is. The lack of early data can cause a lot of errors in the long-term track of the storm.
With hurricane hunters flying into the storm from its inception, there would be much less guessing, and it would improve the hurricane track forecast and the intensity forecast immensely. The improvements would result in everyone, from government officials to emergency managers to the general public, being able to plan for hurricanes more efficiently and effectively.
“The hurricane center forecast, right now, out to five days for future potential for storms. And we can see a time coming when it’s going to be a seven-day forecast,” explained Dunion. “If you’re looking out seven days, you really need to be looking out farther east, out toward [Cape Verde].”
Saharan dust’s role in suppressing hurricane development
Saharan dust is often talked about during hurricane season as “choking storms.” The dry air associated with the dust off the west coast of Africa creates a hostile environment for hurricanes, prohibiting their ability to grow and develop.
The crew flew into the Cape Verde Islands during a Saharan dust event, and seeing it firsthand left the crew in awe.
“Being boots on the ground in Cape Verde and seeing this dust layer with my own eyes was incredible,” Monsour recounted. “I see this wisp of this dust coming off the African coast from satellite, which is cool, but actually being able to see it in an operational setting with my own eyes was very unexpected and very impressive.”
Both Monsour and Dunion described the Saharan dust as an “eerie fog” as they flew closer to Africa.
Until now, hurricane hunter flights were much closer to the US, so the Saharan dust was much more diffused by the time it made it across the Atlantic. This was a first for the crew, who saw the dust lift off the continent. They said the views were breathtaking.
“Unbelievable views of these dusty skies that in a layer from about one to three miles in the atmosphere, it’s just this layer of dust, really thick dust,” Dunion described.
The crew is hoping to fulfill one more mission to the Cape Verde Islands this hurricane season, but Mother Nature will determine when and if it happens.
The storm they explored in early August did not become a tropical system, but Dunion noted they can learn just as much from a storm that forms as a storm that doesn’t, as his crew took a new era of forecasting to new heights.
“Those are the steps you have to take if you want to advance the science,” Dunion asserted. “I think NOAA took a really big step as far as being able to really operate across the Atlantic.”
Tracking two named systems
Last week, two systems in the tropics were given names, leaving us with Danielle and Earl to watch this week. Neither system poses a threat to the mainland US, however, they could be of interest if you are traveling.
Tropical Storm Earl is located about 175 miles north of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. The storm is expected to continue on a northward path during the next few days. Right now, Earl has sustained winds of 50 mph, with higher gusts.
“Slow strengthening is forecast over the next several days, and Earl could become a hurricane later this week,” the National Hurricane Center wrote.
Even though Earl is moving away from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, there will still be effects felt on the islands.
“Earl is expected to produce additional rainfall amounts of 1 to 4 inches, with isolated storm totals of 8 inches, across the Leeward Islands, U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico through Monday,” said the hurricane center.
The current forecast track has Earl passing to the east of Bermuda on Friday at hurricane strength.
Elsewhere in the Atlantic, Hurricane Danielle is out in the open Atlantic with winds of 90 mph. Danielle is expected to slowly weaken over the next few days as it drifts to the northeast. By early next week, remnants of Danielle could impact the United Kingdom, bringing rain and wind to the region.
Lastly, there is a tropical wave off the coast of Africa the hurricane center is watching as well. They are giving the system a 40% chance of development during the next few days.