Tracking Hurricanes with Technology on the Ground and in the Air
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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
On September 8, 1900, a major hurricane swept across the Gulf Coast, killing between 6,000 and 12,000 people on Galveston Island, Texas. There is no accurate death count because many of the bodies were swept out to sea and never recovered.
Eight- to 16-foot storm tides completely destroyed the town. Property damage was estimated at $30 million (equivalent to $764 million today).
The death toll from that unnamed Category 4 hurricane makes it the worst weather disaster in American history.
Historians and scientists blame the high death toll on the lack of advanced warning systems and the poor construction of buildings that could not withstand the 15-foot surges and sustained winds of 145 miles an hour.
Three Major Hurricanes in 2017 Severely Damaged Houston and Puerto Rico
Today, of course, we still have major hurricanes. The 2017 hurricane season was notable for three major storms that severely damaged Houston, Texas, and devastated Puerto Rico, in rapid succession. The U.S. island territory still has not fully recovered from the physical damage caused especially by Hurricane Maria.
No one can predict what will happen during the 2018 hurricane season, which began on June 1. But forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say there’s a 75 percent chance this hurricane season will be at least as busy as a normal year or even busier.
Advances in technology, early-warning communications systems and flights into the eye of the storm help mitigate the death toll and damage from contemporary hurricanes. The aircraft provide an extra dimension of storm prediction, says certified emergency management expert Dr. Christopher Reynolds, Dean and Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development, at American Military University.
“NOAA and the U.S. Air Force’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron monitor the development of tropical systems by flying reconnaissance aircraft into areas of disturbed weather,” Reynolds explains. The “real-time” data that the flights provide help forecasters predict storm development and their path.
Satellite Technology Has Progressed from Monitoring to Predicting Hurricanes
“It’s important to note that advances in satellite technology have progressed from mere monitoring to predicting,” Reynolds adds. “The addition of satellites to the forecaster’s toolbox further enhances our understanding of tropical systems.”
Data from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) Multi-Satellite Precipitation Analysis and the Global Precipitation Measurement Microwave Imager help emergency planners better understand the potential impacts of tropical systems based on precipitation and intensity, Reynolds says.
The advent of these early warning systems combined with stricter, hurricane-protective building codes have greatly reduced death tolls and damage from even the most severe hurricane. So when a hurricane strikes the U.S. Atlantic or Gulf coast today, it is the protective dunes, beaches and structures that are most in danger from the waves and storm surge.
Computer Modeling to Forecast Coastal Erosion from Impending Hurricanes
Physical scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use computer modeling to forecast the likelihood of coastal erosion and other changes. The computer model incorporates the National Hurricane Center’s (NHC) storm surge predictions and NOAA wave forecasts.
The model forecasts three ways a hurricane can impact the dunes that protect coastal communities: erosion, overtopping and inundation, and inland flooding. The model also adds information about the slope of the beach and height of the dunes. Those measurements can be used to predict how high the waves and surge will be across as they cross the beach toward built-up areas.
After the hurricane moves on, the researchers test the model’s accuracy using before-and-after photographs and other data about the state of the dunes.
Last September, after Category 4 Hurricane Irma passed over south Florida, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in collaboration with the USGS, made a series of data collection flights along the Florida coasts using airborne LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology. The technology bounces laser light beams at the ground to produce detailed elevation information about the post-storm surface.
With that information, USGS researchers can:
- Estimate the volume of sand that Hurricane Irma removed from the Florida beaches
- Measure the height and breadth of the remaining dunes
- Be ready to forecast the erosion potential of the next storm
We are now almost two full months into the 2018 hurricane season without a storm striking the U.S. East Coast. Nevertheless, meteorologists and other weather experts have the technology, aircraft and satellites ready to predict and track any tropical disturbance that could become a full-fledged hurricane.