Hurricane Hunters close out above-average season, ‘Roll Up’ operations in St Croix

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Marnee A.C. Losurdo
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

The 2023 Atlantic and Eastern Pacific hurricane season concluded Nov. 30, marking the end of another above-average hurricane season for the 403rd Wing's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, which closed shop at their forward operating location at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Known as the "Roll Up," 403rd Wing reservists spent this week packing up aircraft parts, tools, and communications and test equipment that aircrews and maintenance members positioned at the airport in May to facilitate a quick response when the 53rd WRS, better known as the Hurricane Hunters, is tasked with a storm mission.

The unit stages operations there because for Atlantic storm taskings as their area of operation is huge, extending to just past the Hawaiian Islands to the middle of the Atlantic. While operating in the Atlantic, they need at least 16 hours’ notice from the National Hurricane Center, plus flight time to the forward operation location to deploy for a storm taskings.

The unit typically flies more storm taskings in the Atlantic since there is a greater likelihood of these weather events affecting land, whereas the storms in the Pacific often go westward out to sea, said Lt. Col. Kait McLaughlin, 53rd WRS aerial weather reconnaissance officer. If tasked to fly storms impacting the Hawaiian Islands, the unit typically operates from Kalaeloa Airport, Hawaii.

El Nino, a recurrent weather pattern associated with warming of the ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, typically suppresses the formations of hurricanes in the Atlantic and increases storm formation in the Eastern Pacific. However, it was an active season in both basins because of increased ocean temperatures in the Eastern Pacific and the Atlantic, said McLaughlin. The two basins had 37 storms, 13 of which rapidly intensified, some jumping multiple hurricane categories in a day.

The Hurricane Hunters flew 93 missions totaling 990.5 flight hours and deployed 928 dropsondes to collect data critical to hurricane forecasting. Of the 20 named storms in the Atlantic, the unit flew 10 of those systems as well as six of the 17 named storms in the Pacific. The 53rd’s first flight was June 1 into AL 91 and their final flight of the season was AL 98 Nov. 17.

“The 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season is ranked as the fourth busiest in history,” said McLaughlin. “Fortunately, the majority of the public remained unaware of the heightened activity, as only one major hurricane, Idalia, made landfall in the United States. This year, we were incredibly fortunate due to the synoptic system in the atmosphere guiding most of the 20 named Atlantic storms away from the continental United States.”

In the Atlantic, seven of the storms were hurricanes and three intensified into major hurricanes. Hurricane Idalia made land fall as a category three storm Aug. 30 near Keaton Beach. Florida, causing storm surge of 7-12 feet and flooding. Hurricane Lee, which was a category five at one point, made landfall as a post-tropical cyclone in Nova Scotia, Canada, Sept. 16, causing power outages in Maine and parts of Canda. Tropical Storm Ophelia made landfall on the Emerald Isle, North Carolina, Sept. 23, causing heavy rainfall and river and storm surge flooding in eastern North Carolina.

“The Eastern Pacific season, where we also conduct tropical weather reconnaissance, was also highly active,” said McLaughlin. “Typically, storms in this area don’t make landfall, so we focus only on those with the potential to do so. The 53rd WRS flew into five storms off the coast of Western Mexico, with two causing significant impacts. Hilary brought up to 600% more rainfall than average to areas of California, and Otis rapidly intensified from a tropical storm to a Category 5 just before making landfall in Acapulco.”

Hilary, a Category 4 hurricane at its peak, made landfall Aug. 20. It was the first tropical storm to move into southern California since 1997 and was the rainiest system in Nevada’s history, nearly doubling the state’s 116-year-old record, according to preliminary data from NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center. Hurricane Otis, a category five, struck Acapulco, Mexico with 165 mph winds Oct. 25, holding the record as the strongest landfalling hurricane in the eastern Pacific.

During a tropical storm or hurricane, a 53rd WRS crew can fly through the eye of a storm four to six times. During each pass through the eye, they release a dropsonde, which collects temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, and surface pressure data. This information is transmitted by satellite to the National Hurricane Center to assist them with their storm warnings and hurricane forecast models.

“Our data collected is used three-fold,” said McLaughlin. “It directly helps the forecasters provide accurate path and intensity information to the public and government officials, and it also increases the model data generated to guide the forecasters in their final decision processes. Lastly, it is used for years to come by researchers who are still trying to understand the physical dynamics of how these storms develop."

McLaughlin, who joined the 53rd WRS in 2005, said her peers at that time told her that advancements in satellite technology might render their services unnecessary.

“With the significant leap in computer processing and atmospheric modeling, I have found the opposite true,” she said. “The demand for in-situ data from major weather-producing systems is higher than ever. My entire unit takes tremendous pride in providing this data to assist National Hurricane Center forecasters and tropical weather researchers.”

Although aircrew, aerial porters, and maintenance personnel, who left Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, Monday and are scheduled to return Sunday, prepared the Hurricane Hunter’s Detachment One facility in St. Croix for next year’s hurricane season operations, their job doesn’t end there as the unit provides weather reconnaissance year-round. Before the hurricane season ended, the 53rd WRS began supporting the National Winter Season Operations Plan. They fly atmospheric rivers, North Easters and major winter storms on the East and West U.S. Coasts from Nov. 1 to April 30.

“Crews plan and coordinate winter storm tracks with collaborating agencies to ensure that they are sampling the atmosphere in the areas with the most uncertainties in the models as well as the most impactful data sets,” said McLaughlin. “This data has been proven to greatly increase the accuracy of the National Weather Service computer models for their five- and six-day forecasts.”