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Ellington Airport Plays Key Role in Hurricane Earl Study

NASA researchers look for clues on hurricane patterns

Houston Airport System
September 3, 2010

© Houston Airport System
The WB-57 aircraft is one of three aircraft being used for the hurricane study.

Hurricane researchers at Ellington Airport (EFD) used the arrival of Hurricane Earl in early September as an opportunity to learn more about the development and travel patterns surrounding major storms.

A modified WB-57 aircraft, which is based at Ellington Airport, was used to gather detailed information on Hurricane Earl, including the factors which impact a storm’s intensity and path.

The flights were part of an overall study known by the acronym GRIP, which stands for Generation and Rapid Intensification Processes.

The research involves three separate types of aircraft and represents the first major U.S.-based study of hurricanes since 2001.

The aircraft from EFD is one of the few planes in existence capable of operating at 60,000 feet, an altitude so high that the pilots have to wear special pressurized suits in order to withstand the harsh conditions.

Inside the aircraft sits a device called the Hurricane Imaging Radiometer (HIRAD), which helps scientists determine the strength and structure of a hurricane by looking at wind speeds found deep within the storm.

Bjorn Lambrigsten, one of the NASA researchers working on the project, said Hurricane Earl had proven itself to be an ideal storm from which to gather information.

“It turns out that Hurricane Earl was a very well-behaved storm, with cloud tops generally well below flight altitude,” Lambrigsten says. “As a result, we were able to make multiple passes straight across the eye with several bulls-eyes.”

Hurricane Earl was upgraded to a Category 4 storm at one point during its time in the Atlantic Ocean. It eventually hit the Carolina coastline on September 3 as a Category 2 hurricane.

For researchers, the primary focus was on gaining a better understanding of why some hurricanes intensify over time, while others deteriorate into moderate storms.

Scientists are hoping to determine whether or not Saharan winds somehow play a role in the strengthening or weakening of a storm. They’re also examining the possible relationship between lightning and the intensity of a storm.

Copyright © 2010 - Houston Airport System

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