Into the Storm, Under the Ocean

  • Published
  • By Petty Officer 1st Class Jordyn Diomede
  • United States Naval Academy

The U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) offers many summer internships and programs for midshipmen to take part in each year. One of those internship opportunities is a program called Training and Research in Oceanic and Atmospheric Processes in Tropical Cyclones (TROPIC), an internship program offered to rising first class (senior) and second class (junior) midshipmen during the third block of their summer training.

The program, created by Navy Capt. Beth Sanabia, a permanent military professor in the oceanography department at USNA, began in 2011. During the months of July and August, Sanabia and her TROPIC team work directly with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the Hurricane Hunters, from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, to improve hurricane forecast accuracy by understanding what is happening under the storm during tropical disturbances in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The TROPIC team augments the Hurricane Hunters’ atmospheric measurements by collecting ocean data in and around the storm environment.

“The combination of being able to solve real-world science problems in an operationally-focused environment and gaining an understanding into the mechanics under the storm is what made the program worth doing,” said Sanabia, who has a doctorate in meteorology. “Having midshipmen evaluating these problems punches so many tickets. It advances them professionally, it stretches them operationally and academically, and it requires them to think.”

When the program first started, she only had two midshipmen participating. Since then, she’s had up to 10 students in the program during one hurricane season. Forty midshipmen in total have been a part of the program and the pursuit of unsolved scientific questions about the ocean and its movement during hurricanes.

During these missions with the Hurricane Hunters, midshipmen fly through storms in planes that drop buoys into the ocean. They are then responsible for collecting data the buoys produce throughout any given period. This data includes assessing the ocean’s temperature, salinity, and density changes underneath the storm, while also evaluating the waves themselves. Ultimately, the information they gather contributes to forecast models for current storms and weather predictions for future storms.

“They are doing real research that is often cutting edge,” she said. “We don’t know what the answer is, and that’s a really hard thing for midshipmen because they are, like many of us, focused on achieving an objective in a ‘see the hill - take the hill’ sequence. They want a clear objective – to look for something and find it – and for this type of research it doesn’t work that way. You have to be open-minded about an analysis and see where the data leads, then adjust your approach accordingly. It might take a couple of different techniques to identify a signal and then some deep thought to understand what physical processes are happening. Thankfully, these midshipmen are a trusting and tenacious bunch. They trust the process and work hard, and inevitably everything comes together and they get solid results.”

There are two phases of the program: the field phase and the classroom phase. In the field, midshipmen are focused on data collection, while in the classroom, they are focused on the research itself. For the majority of seniors, the data they collect in the summer while with the Hurricane Hunters, will be used during the academic year as their research project to answer those unsolved scientific questions. The TROPIC team is also composed of scientists from other organizations, including Steven Jayne, a senior scientist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Jeffrey Kerling from the Naval Oceanographic Office. The program is funded through research grants from the Office of Naval Research.

“The professional and academic development of the midshipmen who participate is really important to me,” said Sanabia. “I’m grateful for the support from the Academy and the funding from the Office of Naval Research, and I’m grateful that the midshipmen are all in on it and really give it their best shot, not just in the summer, but in the academic year too. We’ve been able to make some good advances to better understand what’s happening in the ocean under the storm, and we’ve been able to answer some really hard science questions that were not understood before we started.”

In addition to TROPIC, the oceanography department at USNA has other various internships and research opportunities for midshipmen. These include Severe Weather In-Field Training, a program that takes midshipmen to the Midwest to forecast and chase down severe weather (tornadoes), and the Polar Science and Technology Program, a program that allows midshipmen the chance to conduct field research in Alaska in order to evaluate and study surface water chemistry and constituent fluxes through small river systems.

At the end of the day, it takes dedicated professors like Sanabia to keep programs like TROPIC operating at USNA. These programs are faculty-driven and require extensive amounts of planning, time, and preparation to execute.

“The draw is you’re helping keep people safe if you can help make a forecast better,” she said. “That’s the overarching goal, and it’s a hard problem to solve.”

To Sanabia, involving midshipmen in research programs like TROPIC allows them first-hand experience to see what it means to be a good fleet contributor. It’s an opportunity for them to be put in a position where they are heavily relied upon to complete their assigned task within the data collection process.

“Captain Sanabia demonstrated impactful leadership throughout my involvement in the program,” said Midshipman 1st Class Irene Norman, an honors oceanography major. “She gave us room to plan our own data collection, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. She stayed late with us when we had to work on processing and made sure we took time off to recharge. She challenged us to continue improving our analysis and briefs, and she sets the standard of an officer who expects excellence and gives their people the support they need to succeed. I hope to one day be an officer with some of her intelligence, toughness, and commitment.”

Despite the difficulty of collecting data and conducting research on these oceanic developments during storms, Sanabia and her TROPIC team have been instrumental in this cutting-edge research for more than a decade. This is a true testament to the dedication and commitment of not only the midshipmen participating in these programs each year, but the faculty at USNA striving to make an impact on the Navy as a whole.

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