Gliding Through the Blue Frontier
A new wave of hurricane-hunting technology from NOAA explores atmospheric and oceanic interactions in the Caribbean.
Glider SG609 is one of four gliders that are part of the Hurricane Field Program at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. AOML launched its glider project in 2014 with the goal of enhancing the understanding of air-sea interaction processes during tropical cyclones. Scientists and technicians from AOML and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagues run the deployments and recoveries out of Isla Magueyes Marine Laboratories in Puerto Rico, which neighbors the colorful coastal island community of La Paguera.
Underwater glider. Image credit: NOAA
Throughout the Atlantic hurricane season, this autonomous underwater vehicle dives to depths of up to 1,000 meters and travels thousands of kilometers across the Caribbean Sea. Along the way, it may confuse a few giant squid and bump fins with a shark or two, but ultimately it provides physical oceanographers and meteorologists a rare look at the air-sea dynamics at play during extreme weather phenomena. The gliders are deployed in the Caribbean and tropical North Atlantic. Researchers use the ocean profile data from the underwater gliders to assess the impact of tropical cyclone conditions on upper ocean thermal structure, and to improve tropical cyclone intensity forecasts.
The underwater gliders use a fairly small amount of energy to propel themselves through the water. Combining small changes in buoyancy with two pectoral wings, they are able to move both horizontally and vertically. Prior to deployment, the field team refurbishes the gliders, calibrates the compass on each glider, tests the buoyancy, roll, and pitch, and performs simulated dives at the glider port field station in Puerto Rico.
While preliminary results from storms like Gonzalo are very promising, researchers hope to continue the glider missions for several years to build up a database of case studies that will help further improve numerical forecast models. They aim to acquire data from a wide range of tropical cyclone intensities and sizes by using the AOML-CARICOOS gliders. By improving models and forecasts, NOAA researchers help the public prepare for dangerous weather, and keep communities both informed and safe.
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