The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida on September 15, 1999 · Page 10
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September 15, 1999

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The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida · Page 10

West Palm Beach, Florida
Issue Date:
Wednesday, September 15, 1999
Page 10
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ft! THE PALM BEACH POST WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 1999 9A FLOYD to I s The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's hurricane research aircraft Gonzo is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. 7 Floyd's o) 0 U Chris Hornbrook, a systems engineer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitors the data sent back to his computer. 1 '2fn I i i. J W-J U U U JENNIFER PODISStaff Photographer V V Mr" 1 'For every 50 miles we don't put under a warning, we pay for this airplane, and then some.' ALAN GOLDSTEIN Engineer ft P" - - W A Kit' mi i fax- y j i ' 1 i 1 r i in i i JENNIFER PODISStaff Photographer ming from unnecessary evacuations, engineer Alan Goldstein shrugs. "For every 50 miles we don't put under a warning, we pay for this airplane, and then some." NOAA now boasts a fleet of 14 aircraft, including Gonzo and two Dellavill and Twin Otter propeller planes, also named for Muppet characters, Kermit and Miss Piggy. Sunday's mission covered about 4,300 miles, aiming not at Floyd but around it. Gonzo made 23 drops one every 120 to 180 miles, or every 15 to 20 minutes. Add human touch But it's the leap in computer capability that turns all of this diverse information a jumble of numbers into "models" that reflect possible scenarios for the storm's path. The models are more sophisticated now," forecaster Bill Frederick said Tuesday morning from the National Hurricane Center at Florida International University, west of Miami. They improve them every year." In Floyd's case, the key was the trough running along the East Coast. Everything depended on the timing and location of its collision with Floyd. How fast was the trough dropping south? And how fast was Floyd propelling its destruction westward? That was further complicated by Floyd's sheer size. As it continued to swell beyond comprehension, it began to influence the trough as much as the trough influenced it And just like a giant barge, the storm had so much momentum any turn was sure to be lengthy and not very sharp, Frederick said. "Generally, they don't make right turns," he said. But despite the giant strides in computer technology, it still took forecasters to synthesize the machines' educated guesses about where and when Floyd would turn. "Every one of the (models) was consistent on the turn," Frederick said. The trick was to predict which of them was most likely to be on target in terms of where and when the turn would occur. So, despite all the technology, itifnw. battel a; rt ts- - r . i'l f! i I i IT ' r CLOSE CALL From 1A hadn't flubbed it ; I ; But they're not scientists for nbthing. Their confidence wobbled a smidge, but only a smidge. For it was founded on their faith in this decade's computer technology revolution. Pinball wizards. And Floyd didn't fail them. Just as the forecasters said it would, Floyd turned Monday night, just about the time TV viewers were dividing their attention between the grim reality of the hurricane and the blessed distraction of the Miami Dolphins' kickoff. ! The forecasters were absorbed in a much more difficult sport Try to imagine the Atlantic Ocean as one of those old table-top electric football games where the little players vibrate across the board, bounce off one another and career off in every direction. ; The atmospheric action is the same, but with some direction. High-pressure ridges, low-pressure troughs and the jet stream crowd the weather map, battling for dominance. The trick is try to figure how this jigsaw puzzle in motion will come together. It was a much gamier proposition a decade ago. Gazing from Gonzo ! Technology has dramatically improved the odds. ! A phalanx of satellites spews cpnstant pictures from space. Earth-bound weather instruments provide a different perspective. Most important are the buoys, ships and planes on the sea and above it. That's where the action really is. '' The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's armada collects the crucial readings. And flying the point is a new $45 million jet armed with 1-pound weather stations it drops from 8 miles above the roiling Atlantic. : Its nickname: Gonzo. ' '' The scientists on-board climb 41(000 feet before opening the ti-njr door in the air lock. The concentrated outside air screeches as a $500 mini-weather station is jettisoned out of Gonzo's belly, plummeting 80 feet a second. Pumping a stream of data at two bursts per second, the 2-foot-long unit a little longer and a. little narrower than a xh liter water bottle feeds the researchers on board a smorgas-bprd of readings that will be condensed and sent to hurricane forecasting computers in South Florida. After crunching those numbers for hours, the computers spit out a colorful map showing where the ever-strengthening Floyd is headed. ' "For nine hours Sunday, the Gulfstream-IV zigzagged: approaching Bermuda, heading down to the southern Bahamas, and eventually overflying Miami, skirting Floyd's western edge. I- The missions average $25,000 a, flight; Gonzo was expected to make at least one more trip around Floyd. .TBut forecasters credit the 1997 advent of the plane and the revolution in computer technology with helping them reduce by as much as 20 percent the size of their forecast window. For example, with Andrew in 1992, they might have been able to earlier shrink the hurricane warning area, which stretched from Vero Beach to Key West even as Andrew came aground at Homestead. "For every mile of coastline you don't put under a (hurricane) warning, you save $1 million" in private and public costs stem- x ,: i Tro,rh " , , ' Hurricane JENNFIER PODISStaff Photographer The dropwindsonde, dropped from a hurricane research aircraft, picks up signals to transmit back to the plane's computers. How the drop is made Planes drop the sensors over wide areas of the ocean to detect winds that 'steer' hurricanes so their path can be forecast more accurately. Twenty-three were dropped Sunday to track Hurricane Floyd. Dropwindsondes measure wind speed and direction, temperature, pressure and humidity. The sondes transmit information to the planes, which relay it to meteorologists on the ground. 4, I Path STAFF GRAPHIC forecasters ' don't admit perfec- as Homestead, kept hurricane tion. - warnings up for the entire Florida That's why they agreed with east coast and sweated along calls for evacuations as far south with the rest of us. Gonzo mission no day at beach i til ' y north MTA "( JCAROUNA -J) y S0UTH ' Os L . NCAROLINA H c5f I y W0 1 ynrf 1 --J"S -or Ell i Orjandoj -. : ! " Vero Beach o18 L .Atlantic Vero Beach West Palm Jj .. - -v By Biot Weinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer For nine hours on Sunday, Gonzo the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Gulfstream-IV jet zigzagged around the Atlantic at 41,000 feet, dropping electronic devices into weather systems to help meteorologists forecast Hurricane Floyd's track: B 12:15 p.m., MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa- The crew gathers for its pre-flight briefing. B 1:30 p.m.: The plane and its sophisticated equipment, a rack of processors and monitors bolted in front of each seat, lifts off. "You heading to Floyd?" the Miami air traffic center asks pilot Bob Maxson. "See if you can't give him a nudge north." Traveling about 500 mph, the jet crosses the peninsula in less than a hat hour, exiting the coast over Vero Beach. "Fifteen minutes to first drop." ' In the back of the cabin, NOAA engineer Jeff Smith is preparing the first of 23 releases of dropwindsondes over the 4,000-mile route. The 14-ounce electronic unit, packed inside a brown cylinder along with a parachute about the size of a handkerchief, goes into the release tube. A loud "foomp," and it's gone. Smith eyes his computer monitor. The sonde has failed to line up with the satellites it needs to feed data. He drops another. Same problem. The third one does the trick. This one, as several others, were dropped into the trough that eventually steered Floyd away from Florida. B 3:45 p.m., north of Bermuda: The jlane heads south toward the Bahamas and along Floyd's western eye wall. Gonzo is now nearly 600 miles from the eye of the storm, but out the window, its outermost bands are a line of tiny clouds. B 5:30 p.m.: The plane is now less than 400 miles from the eye of Floyd. It bounces along like a washboard as it passes through the west side of the outer bands. Things get choppy. The pilot recommends seat belts. B 9:39 p.m., southeast of An-dros Island: With a final "foomp," Gonzo's crew of 11 stiff and slaphappy after nine hours in a tiny cabin lets go the last of the sondes. The plane wings through the Bahamian darkness toward Miami International Airport, landing about 10:30 p.m. Gonzo will sleep on the tarmac. Out at sea, Floyd pushed on. nor - Gulf of-MianJ - - rv- s: AM . i VCJ 1 0i2 ! Mexico BAHAMAS! , FLOYD O13! as of Sunday CH4 EE! Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration STAFF GRAPHIC

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