NASA hurricane study may alert us to natural disasters earlier

Predicting a hurricane's path is (relatively) easy. But predicting whether a storm will turn into a hurricane? Near-impossible--at the moment.

Pop Sci has a great feature up examining NASA's next big experiment in weather: a project called GRIP (Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes) that may lead to a better understanding of how hurricanes form.

The scientific and meteorological communities are pretty good at predicting a hurricane's path once it forms, but there's a distinct problem before that step. Knowing when a mere tropical storm is going to turn into a hurricane involves a host of complex readings, from temperature to wind speed to air pressure to the movements of different weather fronts, and it's mostly a guess at the moment.

NASA is launching a new effort to discover the roots of hurricanes in the interest of better weather prediction as well as scientific understanding. That effort, GRIP, uses three separate planes (a Global Hawk drone, and a modified WB-57 bomber and DC8) equipped with an impressive array of nearly next-gen sensors and other equipment. Says Pop Sci:

Instruments on the Global Hawk are designed to study hurricanes' innards, using a microwave radiometer and radiosondes that rival the equipment used on NASA's next-generation tropical weather satellites, one of which won't launch until 2013. It contains instruments to measure wind, both horizontally and vertically; temperature and water droplet distribution inside clouds; pressure and humidity; and lightning.

The WB-57 airplane includes a new instrument that will take high-resolution radar measurements of the wind profile, from the ground to the aircraft's height, around 60,000 feet. This will give scientists a good idea of the wind speed around the hurricane.

The data gathered by these planes will, hopes NASA, be used by forecasters to better understand and thus predict the behavior of hurricanes, as well as providing an earlier warning to any people or communities that might be in the path of a potential hurricane.

The project will begin at the start of peak hurricane season, around August 20th.

[Image credit: NASA via Pop Sci]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com