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Florida Hurricane Hunters Journey into Accelerated Hurricane Season Partially Fueled by COVID-19

The 2020 hurricane season is on the fast-track not only from a storm standpoint, but also widespread disease. Five members of the hurricane hunters team based in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Aircraft Operation Center (AOC) in Lakeland, Florida, have tested positive for COVID-19.

NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations spokesperson Jonathan Shannon told media sources in the past week that the reconnaissance base, located at the Lakeland Linder International Airport, had been adhering to CDC COVID-19 guidelines, including social distancing and working from home when possible.




Shannon is also reported as stating that the five employees who tested positive were last in the Lakeland facility between June 3 and June 8 and that several other employees who made contact with the five employees have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. Also according to media sources, Shannon stated that the work areas of the five employees have been thoroughly cleaned, the cleaning of aircraft pre- and post-flight has increased and that the organization’s medical officer is closely monitoring the health and wellness of flight crews and support personnel in accordance with CDC guidelines.



Hurricane hunter missions began in recent weeks to monitor Tropical Storm Cristobal, which formed on June 1 and dissipated June 11. How the momentary staff shortage will affect upcoming hurricane missions is not currently clear.

The NOAA base in Lakeland is one of two organizations in the United States that fly aircraft into tropical cyclones to gather data used to help the National Hurricane Center make predictions about a storm’s strength and potential path. The other operation is known as the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, a flying unit of the United States Air Force, based at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.


Weathering the Storms with Specially-Equipped Aircraft and Highly-Skilled Scientists

While flying into a storm may seem like a counterintuitive endeavor, with the proper aircraft and know-how, airplanes can remain intact while enduring strong winds in flight. According to the NOAA website, airliners routinely fly in jet streams with winds exceeding 150 mph over the U.S. during the winter. The damage or loss of aircraft control occurs in the shear or sudden change in horizontal or vertical winds as found in tornadoes. While NOAA pilots and crew regularly fly in the high-winds of a hurricane without worry of damage, they consistently monitor for "hot spots" of severe weather and shear to avoid if they are too severe.



According to NOAA, much of the scientific instrumentation flown aboard NOAA aircraft is designed, built, assembled, and calibrated by AOC’s Science and Engineering Division. During non-hurricane season months, the P-3s and G-IV are tailored by AOC engineers for use in other severe weather and atmospheric research programs, and flown by NOAA Corps pilots worldwide in a variety of weather conditions.


Below is NOAA’’s description of the Lakeland-based aircrafts.


P-3 Orion: Into the Storm



Slicing through the eyewall of a hurricane, buffeted by howling winds, blinding rain and violent updrafts and downdrafts before entering the relative calm of the storm’s eye, NOAA’s two Lockheed WP-3D Orion four-engine turboprop aircraft, affectionately nicknamed "Kermit" (N42RF) and "Miss Piggy" (N43RF), probe every wind and pressure change, repeating the often grueling experience again and again during the course of an 8-10 hour mission.



Scientists aboard the aircraft deploy Global Positioning System (GPS) dropwindsondes as the P-3 flies through the hurricane. These instruments continuously transmit measurements of pressure, humidity, temperature, and wind direction and speed as they fall toward the sea, providing a detailed look at the structure of the storm and its intensity. The P-3s' tail Doppler radar and lower fuselage radar systems, meanwhile, scan the storm vertically and horizontally, giving scientists and forecasters a real-time look at the storm. The P-3s can also deploy probes called bathythermographs that measure the temperature of the sea.




Storm surge forecasts have benefited from the addition of NOAA-developed Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometers (SFMRs) to NOAA’s P-3s. SFMRs measure over-ocean wind speed and rain rate in hurricanes and tropical storms, key indicators of potentially deadly storm surges. Surge is a major cause of hurricane-related deaths.

In addition to conducting research to help scientists better understand hurricanes and other kinds of tropical cyclones, NOAA's P-3s participate in storm reconnaissance missions when tasked to do so by the NOAA National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center. The purpose of these missions is primarily to locate the center of the storm and measure central pressure and surface winds around the eye. (The U.S. Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron also supports this mission with their WC-130J aircraft.) Information from both research and reconnaissance flights directly contribute to the safety of people living along and visiting the vulnerable Atlantic and Gulf coasts.


NOAA P-3s also participate in a wide variety of national and international meteorological and oceanographic research programs. Recently, these aircraft have been used in major studies on storms approaching the continents of Europe and North America to improve forecasts and study the effects of El Niño, atmospheric gases and aerosols over the North Atlantic, large-scale convective storm complexes in the Midwest, and winter storms battering U.S. Pacific coastal states.


G-IV Jet: Above and Around the Storm


NOAA’s Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV) which can fly high, fast and far with a range of 4,000 nautical miles and a cruising altitude of 45,000 ft., paints a detailed picture of weather systems in the upper atmosphere surrounding developing hurricanes. The G-IV’s data also supplement the critical low altitude research data that are collected by NOAA’s P-3s.



Since 1997, the G-IV has flown missions around nearly every Atlantic-based hurricane that has posed a potential threat to the United States. The jet’s mission covers thousands of square miles surrounding the hurricane, gathering vital high-altitude data with GPS dropwindsondes and tail Doppler radar that enables forecasters to map the steering currents that influence the movement of hurricanes.


NOAA has also used the G-IV to gather important data upstream of winter storms and study "atmospheric rivers," narrow bands of moisture that regularly form above the Pacific Ocean and flow towards North America’s west coast, drenching it in rain and packing it with snow.

The 2020 hurricane season is predicted to have above average tropical activity this year between August and September.


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