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For the exciting conclusion of our series on NOAA's Hurricane Hunter aircraft, we ask meteorologist Nikki Hathaway how flights through tropical storms can give us insight into their origins, mechanics, and perhaps most importantly, their trajectories.
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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we look for answers to the most awesome questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric, and today is the final part of our series featuring the Hurricane Hunters. This program, run by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, operates several aircraft that fly in and around massive storms in the Atlantic Ocean. So far, we've heard about the aircraft and how data on the hurricanes is collected. And today we answer the question: why? What benefit could outweigh the risk of flying in such intense conditions? My guest today is Nikki Hathaway, a flight director and meteorologist with the Hurricane Hunter program. Nikki, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
NIKKI: Thank you so much for having me today. I'm really excited to be here to talk about this.
ERIC: Now mostly when we chat about the Hurricane Hunters with our visitors, they're kind of surprised that it's a modern program. And it's just because we have such great remote sensing now, we can track and measure hurricanes with radar and really sophisticated satellites. So what can a reconnaissance flight into a storm do that no other type of observation can?
NIKKI: So what our aircraft are able to do compared to what people usually think of when they think of weather forecasting and weather tools, like satellites and radar, like you mentioned, is our aircraft, you're actually going into the hurricane and capturing that core dynamics that are going on inside of a tropical cyclone. And so that's our P-3. The P-3 is really the one that's coming in through the eye of the hurricane at 10,000 feet and capturing that inner core science that's really, really critical to building a forecast. And then we have our G4 jet, which actually flies above the storm. And it's capturing also really critical information at the top levels of this tropical cyclone in ways that just satellites can't do. Satellites can paint the picture, you can see the cloud tops, how cold they might be in terms of temperature, but you're not really able to capture all this flight level data that our aircraft were able to go throughout the horizontal level.
ERIC: So it's really about the measurements from within at every different level. Because satellites can only see the top part and you really can't get that penetration.
NIKKI: Yeah, you know, I kind of like to describe it as like a cookie jar. And when you're looking at a satellite, most of the time you're looking at the top like a cookie jar lid, you know, you're really sampling the tops of it, you're seeing the tops of the image, but you're not really getting that inner core information that our aircraft are able to. And then additionally, not only are our aircraft capturing that flight level data that's being captured on the horizontal plane. But we're also deploying things like dropwindsondes, which actually fall vertically through the cross section of the tropical cyclone, measuring things like temperature, dew point, winds, pressure, all the various meteorological parameters that then get kind of peppered in that storm environment. So we're able to not only sample what our aircraft picks up, but also the expendables that we're putting out the back of our aircraft and what they can collect.
ERIC: So it's about getting that 3D real time picture that you just can't get from the radar on land, because it's just getting the outside from the satellites that are just getting the top you really have to fly through it over and over to get the full picture.
NIKKI: Absolutely. And yeah, ground radar is really capturing, you know, as far as maybe 200, 250 nautical miles away from wherever that radar might be located. For example, the National Weather Service radar in Ruskin, Florida, it's really only stretching a radius of 200 nautical miles, 250. In terms of just how far out it can capture that data. Well, when you have a storm in the middle of the Gulf, or out in the Atlantic, you really have to rely on that satellite. And then even still, that satellite really is only capturing that top level of the picture and not getting that inner core. And our planes are actually not only just sampling and getting that flight level data, but our P-3s are actually fixing the center of the storm. And so we're going out there, and me being a flight director on board, I'm using my flight level winds to actually hunt the center of the storm and I'm watching my winds. We're making adjustments to our aircraft, we're turning the plane 360, 340, okay, hold the plane right now let's hold this. Okay, give another few seconds, the winds are falling off. Okay, we hit zero mark center to our navigator. It's a whole team effort, our dropsonde operator in the back, he's deploying the sondes in the center of the storm too. So it's a really big team effort to capture this vital center fix that is really critical, and tracking the storm as it evolves.
ERIC: So I wanted to ask about that too, because you're, as the meteorologist, not back in the lab, just getting the data even in real time, you're on the plane as it's going through it. So is that what you're doing? You're kind of advising on the flight path and telling everybody else on the team like where to go to get the best readings?
NIKKI: So I like to consider our aircraft as flying science labs. And so the instrumentation that we have on these aircraft are really unlike any others. We have our P-3s. We have three different radars on board. We have our nose radar, we have our belly radar, which looks like the big black M&M on the belly of the aircraft. And then we have the tail Doppler radar on the back that's scanning in a very different fashion than the other two. And so my role as a flight director really comes down into a couple different categories. First and foremost, I'm there to help with safety of flight. And so I'm using my meteorological experience, my background, to understand what I'm seeing on radar and interpreting that with my meteorology background, knowing what portions of the tropical cyclone we're sampling and what type of hazards we need to be aware of, and I'm speaking with the flight crew, our pilots up front constantly, hey, let's try to go in at this angle. Or maybe we need to go around this particular storm within the tropical cyclone environment. So safety of flight, of course, is going to be the first and foremost on my mind at all times. Besides that, I'm also the one that's looking at the flight level winds, like I described, to track that center and really hunt that center. That's what my main responsibility is, once I'm inside the eye of the storm, and then everything that's leaving the aircraft is getting filtered through my hands. So I'm quality controlling all the data, whether that be our horizontal flight level data, the dropwindsonde data, all the different types of messages we transmit such as vortex data messages, I craft those up before sending those to the National Hurricane Center. So all of this has been QC before leaving the aircraft and either being put in the hands of the National Hurricane Center forecasters, or straight into the computer models that the forecasters then utilize.
ERIC: So the data coming off the plane isn't just like 100 gigabytes a second of pure everything, it already goes filtered through you. And so coming out of the plane back to land is already super useful and already digested a little bit.
NIKKI: Absolutely. Real time is really key, especially when forecasters are making changes to a forecast or things are evolving quickly. And maybe a storm is undergoing rapid intensification. This allows the public to really get that warning from the National Hurricane forecasters and their local warning forecast offices quicker. And so this is being ingested real time by those forecasters that are making those watches and warnings for the public.
ERIC: So that's what immediately comes to mind a lot of times when we talk about the Hurricane Hunting, is to update the forecast as accurately and as quickly as you can. How does this program actually do its part to improve the forecast? Because it's super important to know exactly where a storm is going to make landfall and how strong it's going to be. What's kind of your role in getting that forecast as accurate as it can be?
NIKKI: It is a big team effort. I mean, whether it's our people in the aircraft, the folks on the ground, the broadcast meteorologists passing back that message to the public, the local emergency managers actually issuing evacuations. So I like to think of us, that's just one piece of this huge forecast team. And so our role particularly is being that data collector. And so we have pilots on board, we have our navigator that's making sure that they're keeping communications with folks on the ground and the air traffic control centers to know where we are exactly, because we're out in these remote locations. We have actual other scientists on board our aircraft to doing specific research in the environment that we're sampling, and really trying to improve the science, long term research to operations type thing. You have the flight director, the flight meteorologists, myself, and then you also have technicians, and actual dropsonde operators in the back and data analyzers, people that are essentially making sure that our data stream is okay, from a technological point of view, right, everything's running the way it should be. All the systems are up and running and functioning the proper way. And so it's this huge team of people all doing their particular role. And it's so important for us to do that one role that we're really assigned to, because if we all do it just right, our main job, that everything comes together, and all that data gets collected in the best and safest way possible. So I like to kind of think about it too, as like maybe like a math problem, right. And so think about algebra, you have like x + 1 = y, right, so you have this input being the x parameter, and then you have the y being that output. Well, the y is like the forecast, right, and they're always hoping to improve this forecast. But we can only have a great forecast based off how we initialize this math equation. And so that's where we really come into play where that x variable we're out there capturing that real time data that then goes in to things like the spaghetti models that people know about, and helped to improve that output being y, the forecast. And so that's really the main role that we play at the Aircraft Operations Center here.
ERIC: So the actual measurements taken from inside the hurricane go into those models that, you know, we can't predict exactly where hurricane is going to go. But the more data we get, the more we can narrow it down.
NIKKI: Yep, the more data we can feed into those computer models, that is real time, this is what we're experiencing the more than model computer models, which are just really big, huge, long math equations can go, okay, I'm gonna eat up this data you're given me, okay, think about a little bit. All right, you know what I think now I'm gonna put my little spaghetti track a little bit further this way. And then the forecasters can interpret that and really get that better understanding and know that. okay, this model has been initialized with this data and, you know, make their choices and do their analysis accordingly. So, yeah, we are just one huge flying science lab out there on a mission to capture the best data we can to really improve the forecast and to help our forecasters.
ERIC: I think it's crazy that the forecasts have improved so much. I mean, even in my lifetime, it's been amazing, but if you think back before there was really much technology at all, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is still the most deadly hurricane in United States history and they had pretty much no warning. More than 100 years ago, the only forecasting was: a ship saw a storm out in the ocean and happened to get a message back to land in time. And then in recent years, we've been able to get storm prediction accurate to, you know, almost the city level of: you should evacuate more, and you should evacuate the most. Can you talk about how amazing it is that the forecasts have improved that much, and why?
NIKKI: Oh, it's remarkable. I mean, as technology continues to evolve, you can expect these type of increases in lead time and a narrowing of the forecast cone to just get better and better as this technology continues to evolve. So as you describe, I mean, you look over the course of 100 years, and you see that transition and technology and just what we're able to do and how we're able to interpret these storms, what parts we're able to analyze, you know, the forecast just keeps getting better. And that that's like I set a team effort, where's all these people in every little compartment of a forecast, even just the way we communicate with the public has changed, right? You have social media. Now, you have, of course, the TV, the broadcast meteorologist doing their job, but you hear the word in so many different ways that you you might not have heard before, right. And so it just it's a huge evolving process. And I'm so grateful to be a part of this team that's able to really help impact these lives and property and making sure that we're saving as many as we can, and giving that warning to make sure everyone stays safe.
ERIC: So the forecasting, and the improvement of that is just one half of the coin. And the other side is that you can just learn a lot about hurricanes in general and how they form and how their strength changes. So how does the data from inside the hurricane affect our knowledge of big picture hurricanes in general?
NIKKI: Oh, yeah. And that really goes back to our research to operation side of things here. So we have so many different scientists that fly on board, our aircraft, all with different objectives they want to accomplish and certain times of the storms evolution, right, we have researchers and forecasts here that want to focus on the genesis side, when the storm is first spinning up, you know, before it's even become a tropical depression, just that early, early stage, when a tropical cyclone is kind of just being born, it's kind of getting a little bit of a spin, there's some tropical nature to it. And that really early stage, a lot of research is being done. And so you have these different types of of researchers that want to study different parts of the evolution of the lifecycle, whether that be a genesis or rapid intensification, even when the storm is dissipating. And so I think having a better understanding of different life cycles inside the phases of life inside of a tropical cyclone is vital. And you know, all of them present their own hazards. And sometimes we get some that spin up really quickly in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, and makes landfall within you know, 24 to 36 hours. That's something that's not uncommon in the past few years. And so better understanding how that spin up occurs is vital.
ERIC: So how did you go from studying meteorology to hurricanes specifically?
NIKKI: I actually grew up in the Tampa, Florida area. And so I had my fair share of hurricanes as I was growing up. I absolutely loved school, and I had hurricane days down here. You have hurricane days. Up north, you have snow days, down here, you have hurricane days. And I was very upset that I could not go to school. And I wanted to know what was causing the disruption to my school schedule. So third grade Nikki said, I need to know more about this, because I'm not able to go to class, and I'm upset about it. So that was the original motivator, was really understanding these big storms and why the school bus couldn't drive in it because it was too breezy, and why I had to stay home. And so the early 2000s, you know, 2004, or 2005, 2006, when things were really active, is really when I became interested, and just fell in love with the weather, and specifically tropical cyclones very early on. And I went to school at Florida State University where they really have a terrific tropical meteorology program. And that's where my interest expanded further. And, you know, now I'm here getting to kind of fly into them on a daily basis during the hurricane season, which is pretty remarkable. I'm very, very excited. Absolutely living the dream, that's for sure.
ERIC: Yeah, that was my next question. How do you go from, you know, there's hundreds of people studying hurricanes to being someone who actually studies them by flying through them? How do you make that leap?
NIKKI: Yeah, great question. You gotta be a little crazy, I guess. It's so funny because I talk to my friends about this job. And they're like, you know, not your typical person wants to go fly through a hurricane. And it took me a second to realize that's probably the general feeling for most people, is that maybe I don't want to get bumped around and collect data. But in my eyes, it's a remarkable mission. We need people out there to do this. And I'm happy to serve alongside my colleagues that are also out here just as excited as me to to capture this data and make sure we're helping to protect life and property. And so I don't know, I don't know how, the world kind of worked out where I landed in the seat, but I'm definitely grateful to be in it and I hope to be in it for a long time.
ERIC: I think most people don't even want to be on a plane. Never mind going into the middle of a hurricane.
NIKKI: You know, you're absolutely right, Eric. That is when I first realized, I'm like, a lot of people don't like turbulence at all, like when you're flying commercially. And it always made me giggle a little bit, and then we get plenty more turbulence and your average commercial flight. And to me it's just powerful, you know. When you realize that like something as strong as what it is is able to move an aircraft thousands of feet vertically or downwards, you know, because of these updrafts and downdrafts. Like, Mother Nature is no joke, right? Like, we have to pay attention to the signs that she shares with us. And I'm just out there to try to collect the data that she's given to us. So I think it's pretty impressive.
ERIC: Nikki, thanks so much for joining me and telling me all about your experiences.
NIKKI: Thank you so much for having us. We really appreciate it.
ERIC: On your next visit to the Museum of Science, be sure to stop by our new exhibit New England Climate Stories to find out how climate change is affecting our area. And while you're at home, head to our YouTube page and check out our Change Climate Change playlist. Until next time, keep asking questions.
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