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Flying with 'hurricane hunters': OU graduate student works with research team collecting data on Hurricane Barry

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Addison Alford (copy)

OU graduate research assistant Addison Alford sits at a station in the NOAA research aircraft.

More than 20,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico, OU graduate research assistant Addison Alford was on the hunt for hard-to-miss prey – a forming hurricane.

Alford was sent in June to help collaborate on new research into how the winds in hurricanes change as they move onto land from the ocean.

In July, Alford became one of about 15 scientists to operate a research aircraft from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, or NOAA. The team was gathering data on a growing weather system over the ocean, which would later become Hurricane Barry, a Category 1 hurricane that hit Louisiana on July 13.

Glancing out the plane’s window, Alford spotted the storm for the first time.

“(Hurricanes) look so small on satellite (images), they look like nothing,” Alford said.

But he added that seeing the storms up close was a different story. 

“There were a couple of instances where the pilots actually had to divert around growing thunderstorms, and so I’m flying along and there’s literally a growing, deep thunderstorm,” Alford said. “It looks like it’s right next to the aircraft, of course it’s several miles away, but it’s amazing to be right up next to a growing thunderstorm and appreciating the immense magnitude of its size.”

Alford said he had not anticipated having the opportunity to fly over a system when he arrived in Florida early in the summer. He was originally sent to help with research on landfalling hurricanes in collaboration with members of the Hurricane Research Division.

Data collected from OU’s Shared Mobile Atmospheric Research and Teaching – or SMART – radars were being combined with data from aerial observations to better understand how some of the strongest winds in a hurricane changed when the storm makes landfall. SMART radars are mounted on trucks, and have been used to study landfalling hurricanes like Hurricane Harvey in 2017. 

“All of ... these types of instrumentation, they’re really useful,” Alford said, “and we’ve never really combined those data sets together, but that’s kind of the idea we had going down there.”

On the flight, Alford said he was more of an observer but did get to take part in collecting data on the storm.

“I won’t lie and say I had a significant role on that flight,” Alford said. “It was worked out with my adviser in the Hurricane Research Division, Jun (Zhang) asked me if I’d like to be on a flight given the opportunity. Of course, I said yes — how often do you get to go on a flight with hurricane hunters?”

Alford did get to help collect data and deploy a dropsonde, which is a device that hurricane researchers deploy from their aircraft to gather data on wind speeds, directions and other environmental factors in hurricanes to help weather services create models and forecasts. The device floats down on a parachute into the storm, and transmits data back to the plane in real time.

Alford, who said he has been involved in the last five deployments on the OU SMART radars, has previous experience studying hurricanes from the ground. SMART radar trucks drive to the coasts ahead of approaching hurricanes and collect data as the storm passes through.

The new opportunity to research the storms from the air has given him a unique perspective, Alford said. From the air, the size of the storms became more clear, and the different methods of gathering data stood out to him.

“Just seeing the differences in how we collect observations with the SMART radars and how we collect data on the ground at landfall,” Alford said, “it’s very different being in a hurricane hunter aircraft out over the open ocean.”

Alford said the continued research is important, and that hurricanes affect more than just the coastal populations – from affecting weather systems elsewhere in the U.S., delaying flights at many airports and sometimes greatly affecting the economy due to damage.

Now with experience studying the storms from the air and ground, Alford said while research from the air is more comfortable, studying from the ground and being in the hurricanes for extended periods lets scientists better understand the issues affected communities face after the disaster.

“You get an appreciation on the ground for the immense power and destructive potential that hurricanes have,” Alford said.

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