Press Release

NASA Researchers Back Home After Successful Tropical Storm Tracking Mission

By SpaceRef Editor
August 31, 2005
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Researchers are drying off after a successful Tropical Cloud Systems and Processes (TCSP) mission. During the Costa Rica-based mission, scientists tracked two major Atlantic Ocean hurricanes at the height of their destructive power, witnessed the entire lifecycle of tropical storms in the Atlantic and documented a number of unexpected surprises about the short, violent lives of these seagoing tempests.

“It was unbelievably successful,” said Dr. Robbie Hood, atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “Of course, we study the weather because we don’t fully understand it. Many times what we expect is not what we get. This time, we were incredibly lucky and very surprised. We were not expecting the tropical cyclones of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico to be so numerous this early in the hurricane season.”

Partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Costa Rican Centro Nacional de Alta Tecnologia (CENAT), the NASA team spent July conducting ground-based and airborne studies of tropical storm systems on Costa Rica’s east and west coasts. They primarily intended to investigate the birthplace of eastern Pacific tropical cyclones, and did so in detail — but a record-breaking early start to a busy Atlantic hurricane season added numerous other research opportunities to the mission.

“Thanks to the NASA team’s hard work and a strong commitment from our NOAA and Costa Rican partners the TCSP experiment was a huge success,” said Dr. Ramesh Kakar, Weather Focus Area leader for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “The weather systems cooperated beautifully and we were very fortunate to complete, and in some cases even exceed, our planned objectives.”

During the project, NASA’s high-altitude ER-2 aircraft flew 13 missions and NOAA’s two WP-3D Orion aircraft flew 20 missions. For the first time, scientists were able to use real-time streaming data, from instruments on the ER-2, to more accurately guide aircraft pilots, even in the dead of night.

The team also employed small, unmanned aerial vehicles, a series of balloon-borne weather probes and several low-earth, polar-orbiting and geostationary NASA and NOAA satellites.

Here are some of the most noteworthy milestones of the 30-day mission:

— The rapid genesis of Hurricane Dennis in a region of the Caribbean where such dramatic development is rare. During the study, the storm’s pressure dropped 12 millibars in two hours — equivalent to how much a garden-variety low pressure system over the United States may intensify in about 24 hours. Researchers hope data from Dennis will help improve understanding of this “rapid deepening” phenomenon.

— Hurricane Dennis provided another amazing observation, when the hurricane — as a powerful Category 4 — passed over Cuba’s mountainous terrain, severely disrupting its well-defined eye and weakening it to a Category 2 hurricane. When it re-emerged over warm waters north of Cuba, the storm quickly regained its former strength and intensity.

— The ER-2 and its veteran pilot, NASA aviator David Wright, overflew the most powerful hurricane of their career while studying the borderline Category 4-5 Hurricane Emily. The ER-2 recorded frequent lightning, unusual in hurricanes, and captured startling Doppler radar imagery of Emily, including “eye wall” storms rising to a rarely observed height of 60,000 feet.

— While monitoring a narrow Pacific region called the “Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone,” scientists were able to watch the birth of Tropical Storm Eugene.

— The ER-2 and P3 Orion flew five back-to-back missions, enabling the team to monitor the entire lifespan of Tropical Storm Gert, which developed from an elongated area of low-pressure or “trough” off the Yucatan coast. The ER-2 also investigated the impact of Mexican mountain ranges on Gert as the storm made landfall.

The TCSP mission was conducted to document “cyclogenesis,” the mysterious formula of rainfall, air and sea temperature, pressure and other factors required to spawn tropical storm systems. Greater understanding of that process could be vital to understanding how hurricanes evolve, intensify and travel — the key to developing earlier, more accurate warning systems.

“Understanding the genesis of tropical cyclones is a mystery that has eluded meteorologists for a very long time, due in large part to a lack of detailed observations,” said Dr. Jeffery Halverson, severe weather meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“Now, by taking sophisticated research aircraft to the remote locations where hurricanes are born, TCSP scientists can begin to piece together the complex birth story of several tropical cyclones in the western hemisphere, some of which were unusually intense and others relatively weak,” Halverson said.

Collation and analysis of the enormous amount of data compiled during the mission is expected to continue for more than a year.

The study continued NASA’s successful Convection and Moisture Experiment (CAMEX) research series, conducted with NOAA from 1998 to 2001. TCSP participants included NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division, NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center, five NASA centers, 10 American universities and partner agencies in Costa Rica. For more information about TCSP on the Web, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.