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Buildings and homes are damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura on 27 August near Lake Charles, Louisiana.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Tales from the storm: how four scientists tracked Hurricane Laura

Communities across Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas are still reeling from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Laura, one of the most powerful storms to strike the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in decades.

The storm, which made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, as a Category-4 hurricane in the early hours of 27 August, has killed at least seven people, destroyed countless structures, and left hundreds of thousands of residents without power. Several research facilities along the coast felt the storm’s sting, but appear to have avoided major damage. At the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium’s Marine Center in Chauvin, wind pushed floodwaters across parking lots and into structures; a damage assessment is underway, according to the center’s Twitter account.

For some scientists, Hurricane Laura catalyzed a scramble to deploy instruments and a chance to add fresh data to efforts to predict how hurricanes might behave in the future. ScienceInsider spoke with four researchers who are involved in such efforts in very different ways.

In the days before the storm hit land, aerospace engineer Nick Underwood of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was part of a team that tracked the developing storm from the air, aboard a propeller-driven P-3 Hurricane Hunter specially outfitted to fly into big storms and collect troves of data.

When Laura made landfall, weather researcher Sean Waugh of NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, was there to greet the hurricane as part of a mobile data-collecting team that deployed sensor-laden vehicles to the Gulf Coast to get an up-close look.

Farther afield, atmospheric scientist Phil Klotzbach of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who helps build storm forecasting models, watched the storm unfold his home in the San Francisco Bay area, tracking numerous streams of real-time data and sharing his insights on social media.

Now that the storm is easing, atmospheric scientist Allison Wing of Florida State University is looking forward to integrating data collected during the storm into models used to improve hurricane forecasting and behavior.

Here’s a sampling of these scientists’ work:

By air: Nick Underwood

Soaring through the storm at 390 kilometers per hour aboard one of NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters, Underwood watched Hurricane Laura gain strength as it surged across the Gulf of Mexico. He and his colleagues flew through the hurricane 16 times in the 6 days before landfall.

Nick Underwood

Mike Mascaro/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

“The aircraft essentially operates as a flying atmospheric research laboratory,” he says. Cruising at relatively low altitudes—often about 3500 meters, well below the tops of storm clouds that can top out at more than 15,000 meters—they collected atmospheric and radar data to inform the National Hurricane Center’s forecast models. In particular, Underwood was responsible for deploying dropsondes, a packet of sensors attached to a parachute. Dropsondes are essentially “reverse weather balloons,” he says; they transmit temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind speed measurements as they fall through the sky.

The P-3 is also equipped with three types of radar. One, a Doppler radar, takes what is essentially “an MRI of the storm” from the sea surface to the cloud tops, he says. It provides forecasters with critical information to determine the hurricane’s structure and strength. In this case, Underwood says, Laura proved to be one of the fastest intensifying storms ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. In about 1 day, it strengthened from a Category-1 to a Category-4 hurricane. “That’s a very rapid intensification,” he says. “Something that I personally haven’t really seen.”

The flights are memorable, he adds. “It feels like being on a wooden roller coaster. Everything is vibrating, you’re getting bounced around, left and right and up and down. But it’s also like that wooden roller coaster is in an automatic car wash because you look outside and it’s just wind and rain and everything blowing against the window.”

By land: Sean Waugh

“I’m actually talking to you from the eyewall of Hurricane Laura as it makes landfall,” Waugh told ScienceInsider in the early hours of 27 August. Just days before, as the hurricane’s forecast path became clearer, Waugh and his team had began to drive their mesonet, or mobile monitoring station, from Oklahoma to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where they parked and prepared for the storm.

Sean Waugh

Sean Waugh/NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory

The mesonet is a rolling laboratory bristling with meteorological instruments. “We also have the ability to launch weather balloons out of the back,” he said, enabling the team to collect data from the sky above.

One of the team’s main goals was to monitor how the behavior of Hurricane Laura changed after it moved over land. Because warm water acts as fuel for hurricanes, storms change when they lose that energy source. A better understanding of that process could have a number of benefits, Waugh says, including for how to improve building codes to better protect lives and property.

As Waugh’s team collected data, winds up to 225 kilometers per hour and heavy rain rattled the mesonet. “There’s a lot of adrenaline,” Waugh says. “It’s both inspiring and almost beautiful, in a way, because there is something fascinating about the weather. But we also do realize that it is also very destructive and very powerful.”

By internet: Phil Klotzbach

Working from the safety of his home, Klotzbach intently watched both the forecasts and the real-time data showing Hurricane Laura’s intensification and progress. He has studied hurricanes for 20 years, and recently helped develop the 2-week forecasts that are issued during peak hurricane season, from August through October. He drew on that expertise as he tweeted out observations that tried to put the storm into historical perspective for his nearly 45,000 followers.

Phil Klotzbach

Kristine Klotzbach

“#HurricaneLaura has now generated more Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) that than all of the other Atlantic named storms during August so far combined (Isaias, Josephine, Kyle and Marco),” he noted on 27 August. And when ranked by wind speed, he tweeted, Laura is tied for the fifth most powerful storm known to have hit the continental United States.

Klotzbach is continuing to track Laura as it breaks up. But the peak of the U.S. hurricane season is still about 2 weeks away, he notes, and he expects more rough weather to come.

Looking ahead: Allison Wing

The past is important to understanding the future, says Wing, who uses hurricane observations collected by weather stations, satellites, weather balloons, Hurricane Hunters, and other platforms to build computer models that can better inform our understanding of storms.

“Storms have such an impact on people, so that motivates us to really try to improve our understanding of them and how they’re changing as best we can so that we can provide the best forecast possible, the best projections for long-term planning,” she says. “[We need to] give people the information they need to prepare for these very intense systems.”

Wing has used models and simulations to study the mechanisms of storm formation and how various factors influence hurricane evolution. The modeling indicates that hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean have strengthened over time, Wing says. And she expects that the warming caused by climate change will increase hurricane intensity in the future.

Now, she will have another data set, from Laura, to add to the record. “Having those high-quality, consistent observations is really important,” she says, “so that we can look back over what has happened in these last few years in the context of a longer history.”