The “Julia Child” of kids’ hands-on science
Dr. Hugh Willoughby, of Florida International University, was one of the first meteorologists to ever fly into the eye of a hurricane. Now the job is done by the Hurricane Hunters—a team of pilots, navigators and meteorologists who fly into these dangerous storms to help keep us safe. Here’s what I learned when I interviewed Hugh Willoughby:
What is a hurricane eye?
Hurricanes are circular storms so the wind blows around in a circle. The eye is the center of a hurricane. If a circular storm doesn’t have an eye, it is not a hurricane—it’s a tropical storm. The eye is surrounded by a ring of clouds called the eyewall. Within the eye, there is a calm area that is cloudless all the way up to space. The winds are strongest just at the inner edge of the eyewall, which is composed of violent thunderstorms with strong updrafts and downdrafts. The hurricane pinwheels out from the eyewall as spiral bands of wind and rain, which stretch for miles. When a hurricane’s eye passes over land, the storm suddenly stops and the sun comes out. But the relief is short-lived as the other side of the storm soon slams into the area.
How do Hurricane Hunters help us?
Hurricane Hunters fly into the eye of hurricanes that are heading towards our shores to help predict where the storm will make landfall. On every mission they must find the center of the storm at least twice and at most four times over a period of several hours because the change in position of the center of the eye tells us the direction the storm is moving and how fast it is moving. They also drop packages called dropsondes that contain measuring instruments for air pressure, humidity, and wind speed at the eyewall. These measurements tell us the destructive power of the storm or its “category.” During a hurricane season (from June 1 to November 30) the Hurricane Hunters and their fleet of ten airplanes can get data on three storms, twice a day. So flying into a hurricane’s eye is pretty routine for them.
Is it dangerous?
The planes can easily handle changes in air pressure and wind speeds that create “bumps” and it can be pretty bumpy going through the eyewall. But, in more than sixty years there have been only four accidents. All on board agree that the view of the eyewall from inside the eye is worth it! The plane has transported them inside nature’s most magnificent amphitheater.
(c) Vicki Cobb 2014
Harvey and Irma have alerted everyone to the dangers of a hurricane. We can predict the course of a hurricane by flying into a hurricane and repeatedly measuring wind speed, humidity, air pressure, and temperature. Here's a video that will give you a taste of what it looks like as you approach an eye wall. It is filmed from a plane penetrating Hurricane Katrina.
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