Forecasting hurricanes

Despite well-known storms like Superstorm Sandy, the intensity of hurricanes has actually decreased significantly in the past 20 years. A team of researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey is using underwater robots, satellites and high frequency radar systems to investigate this phenomenon.


Despite well-known storms, like Superstorm Sandy, the intensity of summer hurricanes has actually decreased significantly in the past 20 years.

A team of researchers at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, is using underwater robots, satellites, and high-frequency radar systems to investigate this phenomenon.

'Jersey Roots, Global Reach.'

So says a sign at the Rutgers Coastal Ocean Observation Lab, the COOL Lab, for short.

The lab's work puts Jersey front and center.

Researchers say they've figured out why experts have been misforecasting the intensity of summer hurricanes in our region.

Hurricane-track forecasts have really improved over the last 20 years, but the intensity forecasts of these hurricanes has lagged.

Case in point, Hurricane Irene.

The August 2011 storm wreaked havoc inland, but weakened to tropical-storm status, falling short of expectations along the Jersey coast.

Why? The researchers say it's because that same water that draws us to the shore every summer sits on top of a cold bottom layer.

A storm's intensity mixes it all up so the water near the coast cools before the eye of the storm gets there.

And since hurricanes are powered by warm water, this cooling leads to a less-intense storm.

Researchers say that pattern holds for every summer hurricane as it crossed mid-Atlantic coastal waters over the past three decades.

The key is to have that two-layer flow in the ocean -- right? -- so you have that increased shear in mixing that friction in the ocean.

And you don't see that in, say, off of North Carolina or in the Gulf of Mexico.

That's not as typical conditions.

So, you can really only study this in places like off the coast of New Jersey.

You can also study it off the coast of China, so in the Yellow Sea.

The team used NOAA's offshore buoys, plus satellites and high-frequency radar systems and what they call underwater robots.

A glider, like this one behind me, measures ocean temperature, salinity, and currents.

The team at Rutgers deploys them all over the globe, including a handful in New Jersey.

They travel under storms, collecting data in real time, and unlike a buoy, the team can control its movements from land.

There's been a lot of research on hurricanes over the deeper ocean -- where they form and how they propagate toward land -- but we're really the first to have the resources in the water, underneath these storms on the coastal ocean.

Researchers say that when a storm's intensity is lower than originally forecast, the state wastes money and manpower on emergency preparedness, and people are desensitized.

Some New Jerseyans didn't heed warnings ahead of Superstorm Sandy, figuring they weathered big, bad Irene just fine.

We want people to have faith in the forecasts that are made so when emergency managers tell people to evacuate, they actually listen.

And, so, this team is playing defense.

A lot of the deep-ocean research on hurricanes -- we can think of them as the attackmen, you know, going out and deploying, you know, floats, some gliders on the deep ocean to go out to the storm, but we act as that goalie along the coastline to protect that coastline.

A job that will only get more important as sea levels rise and intense storms migrate northward.