Here’s how NASA is looking at hurricanes this season


FILE – This enhanced satellite image made available by NOAA shows Tropical Storm Florence, upper left, in the Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018 at 3:30 p.m. EDT. At center is Tropical Storm Isaac and at right is Hurricane Helene. (NOAA via AP)

(NASA) – June 1st marked the start of hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. Last year’s hurricane season saw a record-setting 30 named storms. Twelve made landfall in the United States, also a record. From space, NASA has unique views of hurricanes and works with other government agencies – like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – to better understand individual storms and entire hurricane seasons.


Here, five ways NASA is changing hurricane science:

1. We can see storms from space

From space, we can see so much more than what’s visible to the naked eye. Among our missions, NASA and NOAA have joint satellite missions monitoring storms in natural color – basically, what our eyes see – as well as in other wavelengths of light, which can help identify features our eyes can’t on their own. For instance, images taken in infrared can show the temperatures of clouds, as well as allow us to track the movement of storms at night.


2. We can see inside hurricanes in 3D

If you’ve ever had a CT scan or X-ray done, you know how important 3D imagery can be to understanding what’s happening on the inside. The same concept applies to hurricanes. Our Global Precipitation Measurement mission’s radar and microwave instruments can see through storm clouds to see the precipitation structure of the storm and measure how much total rain is falling as a result of the storm. This information helps scientists understand how the storm may change over time and understand the risk of severe flooding.

We can even virtually fly through hurricanes!


3. We’re looking at how climate change affects hurricane behavior

Climate change is likely causing storms to behave differently. One change is in how storms intensify: More storms are increasing in strength quickly, a process called rapid intensification, where hurricane wind speeds increase by 35 mph (or more) in just 24 hours.

In 2020, a record-tying nine storms rapidly intensified. These quick changes in storm strength can leave communities in their path without time to properly prepare.

Researchers developed a machine learning model that could more accurately detect rapidly intensifying storms.


It’s not just about how quickly hurricanes gain strength. We’re also looking at how climate change may be causing storms to move more slowly, which makes them more destructive. These “stalled” storms can slow to just a few miles an hour, dumping rain and damaging winds on one location at a time. Hurricane Dorian, for example, stalled over Grand Bahama and left catastrophic damage in its wake. Hurricanes Harvey and Florence experienced stalling as well, both causing major flooding.


4. We can monitor damage done by hurricanes

Hurricane Maria reshaped Puerto Rico’s forests. The storm destroyed so many large trees that the overall height of the island’s forests was shortened by one-third. Measurements from the ground, the air, and space gave researchers insights into which trees were more susceptible to wind damage.


Months after Hurricane Maria, parts of Puerto Rico still didn’t have power. Using satellite data, researchers mapped which neighborhoods were still dark and analyzed demographics and physical attributes of the areas with the longest wait for power.


5. We help communities prepare for storms and respond to their aftermath

The data we collect is available for free to the public. We also partner with other federal agencies, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and regional and local governments to help prepare for and understand the impacts of disasters like hurricanes.

In 2020, our Disasters Program provided data to groups in Alabama, Louisiana, and Central America to identify regions significantly affected by hurricanes. This helps identify vulnerable communities and make informed decisions about where to send resources.


The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season starts today, June 1. Our colleagues at NOAA are predicting another active season, with an above average number of named storms. At NASA, we’re developing new technology to study how storms form and behave, including ways to understand Earth as a system. Working together with our partners at NOAA, FEMA and elsewhere, we’re ready to help communities weather another year of storms.

Bonus: We see storms on other planets, too!

Earth isn’t the only planet with storms. From dust storms on Mars to rains made of glass, we study storms and severe weather on planets in our solar system and beyond. Even the Sun has storms. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, for instance, is a hurricane-like storm larger than the entire Earth.


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