Behind the Forecast: Hurricane Hunters vs Winter weather

Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Updated: Jan. 15, 2021 at 11:00 AM EST
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NOAA Lockheed Martin WP-3D Orion N42RF in flight.
NOAA Lockheed Martin WP-3D Orion N42RF in flight.(NOAA)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - We have a few months before the 2021 hurricane season officially begins, but the famous Hurricane Hunters are still working hard. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and United States Air Force (USAF) Reserve Hurricane Hunter crews not only fly their typical hurricane season missions but winter ones too!

There are 13 aircraft in the NOAA and USAF Hurricane Hunter fleet. For the last two decades, the NOAA G-IVs and USAF Reserve WC-130Js have conducted special missions from November 1st through mid-April. They fly over the U.S. East Coast, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico, collecting atmospheric data to learn more about impending or ongoing winter storms.

The Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes (CARCAH), located at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami, coordinates the Hurricane Hunter’s missions. Where they fly for their winter missions is determined by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction in College Park, Maryland.

The two types of aircraft collect distinct but complementary data during their flights. The USAF WC-130Js fly at lower altitudes (24,000 and 30,000 feet), while the NOAA G-IV flies higher in the atmosphere (40,000 to 45,000 feet). The WC-130J Super Hercules typically fly at 500 to 10,000 feet through tropical systems. During hurricane season, low-level missions determine if there’s a close circulation in a weather system; altitudes range between 500 to 1,500 feet. “Fix” missions help find a storm’s low-pressure center; flight altitudes range between 5,000 and 10,000 feet.

While the Hurricane hunters typically fly through hurricanes, they fly ahead of winter storms.

Dropwindsondes are deployed as high as possible in the atmosphere, accumulating temperature, wind, atmospheric pressure, and moisture data.

The data collected in the data-lacking ocean areas helps to improve winter weather forecasting.

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