Weather is tough to predict at the best of times, with Mother Nature not necessarily bringing the human need to know what clothes to wear into her equations. But it gets even trickier when trying to predict hurricanes.
"Forecasting intensity is one of the biggest problems we have right now with hurricanes," says NASA atmospheric scientist Robbie Hood.. But Hood and her team of researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center are making strides toward solving that problem with a new invention called HIRAD, short for Hurricane Imaging Radiometer.
To construct a proper computer model to predict the outcome of a hurricane, one needs to be able to measure wind speeds at the base of the storm. In particular, winds close to the eye of the storm, and in the eye wall. But, naturally, that close to the frothing torrent of wind, is not an easy place to acquire data.
This is where HIRAD comes in to the picture. Designed to operate from an airplane or satellite, "HIRAD will see from above through a hurricane's heaviest rains and thickest clouds to measure the intense winds at the surface of the ocean," says Hood.
"Strong winds sweep and swirl across ocean waves, whipping up foamy white froth," explains Hood. "HIRAD measures microwave radiation naturally emitted by this froth; the stronger the winds, the more froth, and the more microwave radiation."
Also, HIRAD measures a wider swath of the ocean, meaning that there will be less passes to make, and the information will be acquired quicker. It is small, lightweight and doesn’t use much energy. No moving parts, inexpensive and with the potential to be mounted in a satellite, makes HIRAD a perfect companion to weather predictors.
HIRAD is gaining popularity, and is hoped to make its first trial run in the hurricane season of 2009. But funding is vital, for the progression of HRIAD from prototype to working tool. It will need to pass the 2009 trial run, and hopefully with funding, be installed upon a satellite.
"When you fly an instrument on a satellite, it helps everybody on the globe," she says. "It improves forecasting around the world, for countries that don't have the ground-based radar and aircraft instruments larger countries have."
Karen Stephens, HIRAD Project Manager, adds, "In the post-Katrina era, it is especially satisfying to be working on something so immediately beneficial and possibly life-saving."
Posted by Josh Hill
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