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SHAKE AND BLOW
NASA sends drones to track hurricanes' secrets
by Staff Writers
Wallops Island, United States (AFP) Sept 15, 2013


Typhoon Man-yi heads for Japan
Tokyo (AFP) Sept 15, 2013 - Typhoon Man-yi advanced towards central Japan Sunday, bringing heavy rains as officials warned of floods and strong winds.

The storm, located in Pacific waters south of Japan, was packing gusts up to 126 kilometres (78 miles) per hour and moving north-northwest, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

It was on a direct course to hit Japan Monday morning, possibly around 9:00 am (0000 GMT) in Shizuoka prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, according to the agency.

The typhoon was then expected to head northeast towards the capital and its surrounding region, according to its predicted track.

Man-yi might also hit Fukushima, where crews have struggled to contain a crippled nuclear plant that has contaminated groundwater with radioactive materials as it flows to the Pacific Ocean.

The typhoon has already brought heavy rain and strong winds to areas along the Pacific, although no serious injuries or severe structural damage have been reported so far.

The weather agency issued warnings for flooding, heavy rain, mudslides and high ocean waves to areas along the Pacific coast.

A pair of converted military drones are the US space agency's newest tools for tracking hurricanes and tropical storms, with the aim of improving forecasters' ability to predict them.

Originally built for military reconnaissance missions around the world, they are the size of large commercial jets and are flown remotely from a NASA base on the Virginia coast.

The drones are capable of flying for 30 hours at an altitude of 21,000 meters (69,000 feet), or twice the height of a passenger plane.

They can also cover large swaths of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in a single mission, according to Chris Naftel, head of the drone project at NASA's Dryden center in California, the secondary drone base.

The two Global Hawks began operating as NASA drones in 2012, as part of a project that will last for three years. The drones operate in most active months -- August and September -- of the Atlantic hurricane season, which goes from June to the end of November.

"It opens a window into a storm we did not have before," said Scott Braun, a research meteorologist on the project called HS3, short for the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel.

"Before we had short snap shots of individual storms at various times," he told AFP.

Until now, the old stand-bys for monitoring storms have been piloted weather planes and satellites, he said.

"By being able to view a storm continuously over a 20 hour period, you have a longer window to capture it," he added.

"This experiment will allow a better understanding of the processes that govern the intensification in the formation of storms."

Even though scientists have been able to make great leaps in projecting the paths of hurricanes in recent years, their ability to predict the power and severity of storms has improved very little.

Better forecasts would help authorities more swiftly make life and death decisions, like whether and when to evacuate people in the storm's path.

According to NASA, nearly 100 million Americans live within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of a coast and are therefore at risk of being in the path of a hurricane.

The drones have two chief scientific missions: to determine the role of thunderstorms and rain in the intensification of storms, and to study the influence of the Saharan Air Layer, in the intensity of tropical cyclones.

This very dry and dusty air mass forms over the Sahara desert and moves into the tropical Atlantic from the end of springtime until the beginning of autumn.

Scientists are divided about the air mass's impact on the intensity of tropical cyclones. Some think that the dry air could weaken a storm by blocking the upward motion of air and wind, while others suggest that the phenomenon makes storms more potent.

NASA along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are partners in the 30 million dollar program, and they hope that the information collected during three hurricane seasons in the Atlantic will provide some answers.

Each of the planes is equipped with different instruments, including a laser for studying the structure of the clouds, a microwave system to probe the heart of hurricanes, GPS systems and radar. The drones' precision instruments measure temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure several times per second.

"We are really interested in trying to get measurements as close as we can to the surface of the ocean," said NOAA scientist Gary Wick.

The data are transmitted to the drone, which sends them via satellite to the control tower at Wallops then to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida where they can be redistributed to weather forecasters across the country in near real-time.

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