Hurricane Hunters support transitioning U.S. Navy research program

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

For more than a decade, U.S. Navy Capt. (ret.) Beth Sanabia, Dr. Steve Jayne and over 40 U.S. Naval Academy and Woods Hole Oceanography Institute interns have spent part of their summers in places such as the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Hawaii.

All ideal summer vacation spots, those locations are also ideal for oceanography scholars—like Sanabia, Jayne, and their pupils--interested in studying the ocean and how it reacts with tropical weather systems and vice versa.

Training and Research in Oceanic and Atmospheric Processes in Tropical Cyclones, or TROPIC, is a USNA internship program that has been led by Sanabia since 2011 and works directly with the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.

“Starting out, the objective of TROPIC was to help improve forecast models,” said Sanabia. “Over time, we’ve realized that the ocean sensors enable us to do that in two different ways. The first is, essentially, obtaining a snapshot of the ocean’s conditions—a one-time look ahead of the storm to see what’s there.”

These upper-level conditions are obtained routinely in bodies of water via fixed buoys or by ships, but by partnering with the 53rd WRS, TROPIC is able to deploy sensors, Airborne Expendable BathyThermographs, from the 53rd WRS’s WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft in the vicinity of a tropical cyclone.

The “snapshot” serves as a comparison to what the models suspect the ocean’s conditions are based on fixed buoys, which can impact a storm’s forecast, and it improves the ocean models.

Having mastered the art, so-to-speak, of gathering and disseminating quality data from the ocean in front of and around a hurricane, Sanabia said the process is in a research-to-operations transition and is ready to be taken over by the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVO) at John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss.

“The other way the sensors enable us to work toward our mission is through process studies,” said Sanabia. “We would like to understand exactly what the hurricane does to the ocean below and vice versa.”

Examples of process studies she referred to were the cooler ocean temperatures left behind a storm and the modulation of energy transfer via waves. Being able to get that data behind or around a storm, has enabled questions to be answered and further the understanding of the relationship between the ocean and tropical systems.

Sanabia, who retired from the Navy and USNA as a captain earlier this year, said that her and Jayne’s involvement with the program moving forward will be primarily in the process studies realm, and while the Academy has valued and supported the program throughout the years, her departure leaves the internship side of the program’s future uncertain.

Manny Haenggi, NAVO oceanographer, is looking forward to leading the way for the transition into the data collection role and pointed out the uses beyond hurricane forecasting and research.

“Not only do the observations get assimilated into the models,” he said. “They also go into our Master Oceanographic Observation Dataset (MOODS) which is an internal database to NAVO that we use to make products.”

The products derived from such data in turn benefit Navy and Department of Defense operations, and Haenggi hopes to expand the scope of his data collection with the 53rd to as time goes on.

“The collaboration and continued relationship with the 53rd is extremely important for getting data in areas where we don’t have it and potentially deploying future instrumentation,” said Haenggi. “NAVO does a lot of work, as does Scripps (Institution of Oceanography), with new instruments or cutting-edge technology. To put it quite frankly, ship time is expensive, so being able to have this relationship and utilize existing missions to deploy instruments is very valuable to NAVO.”