There are few places I’d rather be less than the eye of a Category 4 storm in the middle of the ocean. But I have always been curious to know what it would be like, what with monster waves, squalls of rain, and whipping winds turning the ocean into a frothy mess.
Now, I don’t have to imagine it, nor do you. Saildrone, a company that has a fleet of autonomous vehicles roving the ocean, sent one of its drones into the maw of Hurricane Sam equipped with sensors and an HD camera. The resulting footage has confirmed my suspicions that a Category 4 storm at sea is a terrible place to be. But the drone’s images and data are also key tools for researchers looking to better understand storms. Our past few hurricane seasons have been waking nightmares, illustrating why it’s never been more important to improve the forecast and provide more timely warnings.
Sam is an utter monster of a hurricane that’s been slowly churning across the Atlantic since last week. Saildrone has five of its vehicles equipped to handle hurricanes zipping around the seas, and Sam offered a perfect intercept opportunity. Intercept, the drone did.
On Thursday, the vehicle went into the eye of Sam. Winds reached 120 mph (193 kph) and waves topped 50 feet (15 meters). The resulting footage shows the utter violence of a storm that, thankfully, is not forecast to make landfall. Bermuda could get some tropical-storm-force winds this weekend, but that’s about it. So we can all enjoy this stunning footage (with a barf bag if you need it) knowing that nobody was harmed in the making of it.
The saildrones look like a cross between a kayak and a catamaran. The specialized one that captured the footage from Sam measures 23 feet (7 meters) in length and is among a handful that have a unique “hurricane wing” that helps the vehicles stay upright in strong winds.
The footage feels like it could be an inspiration for a new climate change-themed Disney rollercoaster. After all, rising ocean temperatures are contributing to more rapidly intensifying storms. (Disney, call me if you need a consultant.)
But while we wait to see if Disney decides to go that route, scientists will be busy analyzing the footage and data captured on the trip. The HD footage is but a small piece of the saildrone’s trove of information. It’s the most eye-catching, sure. But what scientists are really after is the data collected by the saildrone’s sensors. The data these types of drones can capture include ocean salinity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen as well as wave height, wind speed, and direction. That’s the lifeblood of hurricane forecasts.
Hurricane forecasts have improved remarkably in recent decades as new data becomes available. Satellites and Hurricane Hunter aircraft have helped refine meteorologists’ understanding of hurricanes. Other autonomous floats that bob up and down in the ocean have also provided key data. The saildrones offer yet another avenue to pinpoint the dynamics that can cause hurricanes to blow up at the ocean level.
“Using data collected by saildrones, we expect to improve forecast models that predict rapid intensification of hurricanes,” Greg Foltz, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist, said in a statement. “Rapid intensification, when hurricane winds strengthen in a matter of hours, is a serious threat to coastal communities. New data from saildrones and other uncrewed systems that NOAA is using will help us better predict the forces that drive hurricanes and be able to warn communities earlier.”
In an era where climate change is adding a new variable to the system, this data will be invaluable. I’m glad researchers are excited to trawl through it, but I have faith watching this footage over and over is a lot more fun.