Politics

Data to plot strength elusive

The nation's hurricane researchers are measuring the force of dangerous storms using hand-me-down devices from the Navy manufactured during the Cold War and coated in ash from a 1991 volcanic eruption in the Philippines.

And that's the upside.

The bigger problem: Researchers have no way of getting the data to the National Hurricane Center even though they believe it would help forecasters better predict the sudden strengthening of storms.

''There is no hope of accurately predicting the intensity change of a hurricane without accurately being able to predict and forecast the conditions in the upper ocean,'' said research meteorologist Mike Black, with the Miami-based Hurricane Research Division, which supports the Hurricane Center during storms.

The Navy donated the devices to the Research Division in the early 1990s. Some came from a base in the Philippines and were still covered with ash from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

Though the devices were manufactured 15 years ago, they were welcome gifts to the government's hurricane researchers, who have long lacked basic equipment.

Researchers decided to drop the devices, called the Airborne Expendable Bathythermograph, during hurricane missions on the government's specially equipped turboprop planes, the WP-3D Orion.

The three-foot expendable probes capture the temperature of the ocean down to 1,000 feet. Heat fuels hurricanes -- storms are generally stronger when the water is warmer in the upper layer of the ocean.

The more modern dropwindsondes, also released from planes, don't measure ocean temperature; satellite data is not nearly as precise and measures only the ocean's surface temperature.

Problem is, researchers can't get the data to forecasters and the computer models they use to plot the path and strength of hurricanes.

Software must be developed, at an estimated cost of $200,000. But researchers say the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration won't support the request.

Researchers also want the hurricane hunter planes flown by the U.S. Air Force Reserve to drop the devices. Modifying the planes would cost an estimated $5 million.

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