According to NOAA, Hurricane Ian became the 15th Billion-Dollar disaster in 2022. Landfall impacts from Ian are still being felt, as residents of the Florida coast begin rebuilding their homes where severe flooding and damage took place. Though devastating, Hurricane Ian spurred a newfound interest in forecast and risk communication in the media, and provided a real-world opportunity for WPO-funded critical forecast improvement research to take place.
The Weather Program Office (WPO), situated within NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), is responsible for finding and funding the most promising forecast improvement research across the Weather Enterprise, which includes academia, private sector, and government. Primarily used to identify and transition research into operations, WPO’s portfolio is often a first look at developing and accelerating potential advancements to our forecast, especially where it relates to extreme weather.
To continue capitalizing on improvements made in the research community, WPO funds Testbeds, which are quasi-operational environments tasked with the goal of testing research products for their accuracy, usability and value prior to transitioning them into operations. NOAA’s Hurricane Ocean Testbed allows researchers and forecasters to work alongside each other as they integrate new research, observations and analyses into operational forecasts for hurricane forecast improvement. During Hurricane Ian, researchers from the University at Albany, SUNY and forecasters at the National Hurricane Center tested new methods to evaluate hurricane track and intensity models. Since hurricanes begin in the ocean where observations are sparse, it is important to understand where and how to collect field data for maximum impact. This project provides targeted guidance to those collecting hurricane observations on where and how to collect data that will be the most beneficial for forecasting and lead to more accurate forecasts.
Observing technologies are a cornerstone for forecast accuracy and improvement. WPO funds Observations research to fill these gaps in forecasting with observational technologies. One area that has known research gaps is at the point where the ocean and atmosphere meet, called the boundary layer. Complex physics and chemistry are at play while storms develop and draw energy from the ocean below. During Hurricane Ian, two notable observing systems were deployed to collect targeted observations for both operational forecast accuracy, and for research to improve weather models.
WindBorne Systems works with the National Hurricane Center through their testbed to identify and meet forecaster needs for observations in the boundary layer. WindBorne Systems deployed two WPO-funded technologies during Hurricane Ian to test their operational value: Global Sounding Balloons and Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Radar technology. Global Sounding Balloons offer an improvement from commonly used GPS dropsondes for their extended endurance (up to 7 days) to better understand hurricane genesis, while Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Radar technology has the ability to collect fine-resolution data from directly below the flight path for a true vertical profile, despite strong wind and rain conditions. WindBorne continues work to fill specific observational gaps to more accurately collect data from the boundary layer, and to examine the accuracy of SFMR surface wind speeds in the inner core of a hurricane.
Additionally, an Area-I Altius-600 uncrewed aircraft system was deployed into a hurricane by scientists at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory for the first time in an operational capacity. The Altius drone is built to withstand hurricane conditions, and during Hurricane Ian it successfully completed a two-hour mission, collecting profile data to be used by hurricane scientists throughout NOAA to better understand the boundary layer.
Just as physical observations help us to improve the accuracy of the forecast, social science observations are similarly needed to improve how the forecast is communicated and understood by the public. WPO funded Social Science research conducted by NCAR and Stanford University during the forecast period for Hurricane Ian offered an unprecedented opportunity to gain insight into how people consume forecast information.
Most social science research to date has focused on collecting data from people affected by tropical cyclones 2-4 weeks after the event, but this project allowed for data collection via surveys before, during, and after the hurricane to understand people’s perceptions and behavior and where improvements can be made to the NOAA/NWS tropical product suite. This research highlights the need to continue building capacity to collect and analyze social science observations in conjunction with meteorological observations. A better understanding of how people receive, perceive, and take protective action from forecasts will help NOAA improve forecast communication into the future.