U.S. Naval Academy tests waters with Hurricane Hunters

  • Published
  • By By Senior Airman Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

When the subject of summer internships comes up, thoughts like fetching coffee and doing paperwork or answering phone calls comes to mind.

What does not come to mind is working 10,000 feet in the air in an U.S. Air Force Reserve WC-130J flying through a hurricane for the sake of research.

For the Oceanography Department at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, this has been the in-a-nutshell description of one of their summer research programs since 2011.

U.S. Navy Captain (Dr.) Beth Sanabia, an Oceanography Professor at USNA, leads a team of Naval Academy midshipmen in TROPIC, the Training and Research in Oceanic and Atmospheric Processes in Tropical Cyclones Program, during the months of July and August.

TROPIC teams up with the 403rd Wing's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters, out of Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, where they accompany them into all manner of tropical disturbances in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, said Sanabia.

Their purpose: to research ocean conditions beneath the same storms in which the 53rd collects atmospheric data. Buoys released during the flights called Airborne Expendable Bathythermographs measure a number of oceanic conditions anywhere from 400 to 1,000 meters in front of, directly under, and behind a tropical system.

The AXBTs are dropped fairly evenly spaced throughout a storm through the flare launch tube located in the back of the aircraft, said Sanabia. From 10,000 feet it takes about two minutes for the buoys to parachute down to the surface of the water. Upon reaching the surface, the saltwater activates the battery inside the buoy where a copper wire with a weight attached unfurls and begins a simultaneous descent and data collection. The data is sent via radio signals back to a computer on the plane where it is processed and readied for transmission to the Naval Oceanographic Office and National Data Buoy Center, who send it out to be absorbed by forecasting models.

Though the program's normal months of operation are during July and August, major storms like Hurricane Florence bring them back for an extra research opportunity.

"For Florence, the team is using AXBTs measuring the ocean's temperature to 400 meters and a new buoy called an ALAMO, or Air-Launched Autonomous Micro Observer," said Sanabia. "These profiling floats measure temperature, salinity, and pressure in the ocean and can take hundreds of profiles over days and weeks.  The floats are very useful because they can give information every few hours about the ocean conditions ahead of, during, and after the storm. They not only improve the initial conditions which help current hurricane forecasts, they help scientists understand the physical processes going on in the ocean so they can make the models better."

In recent years, the program has been augmented by Navy officers enrolled in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute master's program and senior scientist at WHOI, Dr. Steven Jayne. Students from USNA and MIT/WHOI conduct physical oceanography research related to hurricanes. 

The students participating in TROPIC are expected to use the data as a basis for a large research paper at the end of the year. This year, Sanabia said they are using the data collected from the program's eight seasons to compare the measurements taken during tropical disturbance activity to average conditions. 

"I've picked up a lot and learned a lot of things really quickly, and I feel like it has been a valuable experience for me," said USNA Midshipman Sowen J. Sun, who is an oceanography major and has flown in Hurricanes Hector and Florence with TROPIC this year. "I feel like I'm actually doing something that impacts not only what we research but other people as well. Data we send goes to NOAA and all of these other organizations and helps better predict hurricanes, and I think that's very important to not only us but people that live along the eastern seaboard and in the Pacific as well."

Sanabia noted that the way the Naval Academy looks at field research is that it is important to research something with the goal of finding a solution; thus, collecting data from waters under and around a storm is critical to both the present and future accuracy of hurricane forecasting.

"We have a great relationship with the 53rd," said Sanabia, who first flew with the squadron in 2008 while working toward her PhD. "The crews are flexible working with the Midshipmen, so we are just really grateful to be a part of this."