As Isaac Rages, How Far has Our Storm Tech Come?

Global Hawk, Photo: NASA

As Tropical Storm Isaac batters the Gulf Coast, I’m left wondering if our modern engineering and technological arsenal—used to predict and monitor hurricanes, keep communities safe, rescue victims, and clean up after the fact—has changed or improved since Katrina’s devastating blow seven years ago.

After hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE ) got to work building a $14.5 billion flood-defense system for New Orleans. The 350-mile flood protection network includes a 1.8-mile-long, 25-foot-high surge barrier. The barrier—known to locals as “The Great Wall”—sits east of the city and was closed on Tuesday against a possible tidal surge from the Gulf of Mexico.

A new drainage pump—billed as the largest in the world—was also built after Katrina. The station can pump 19,000 cubic feet of water per second (or one Olympic-size pool every four seconds).

Now that the storm’s here, mobile tech (think iPhones and iPads) has become our eyes and ears. The Google’s crisis response team has created a map providing information about the storm’s direction and wind-speed probabilities, traffic conditions, active shelters and evacuation routes. And the USACE has developed a new electronic, mobile system which tracks disaster relief rather than relying on a pen-and-paper process which left Katrina victims without proper aid for weeks.

We all knew Isaac was coming days out. We watched as it moved over Cuba and Haiti and then made its way towards the U.S. mainland, turning from a Category 3 hurricane into a tropical storm. Behind these blow-by-blow weather reports was the Hurricane Hunter aircraft, flown by the Air Force Reserve, and used to predict and track storms like Isaac.

The Hurricane Hunter is able to fly 500 to 1500 feet above the ocean surface where its crew can monitor the ocean waves and determine wind speed and direction. It can also fly directly into the eye of the storm where weather instruments called dropsondes are released and record the location of the center as well as maximum winds and temperature, and minimum pressure.

Data collected by the Hurricane Hunter is 30 percent more accurate than traditional forecasting, and with each U.S. coastal mile costing around one million dollars to evacuate, accuracy is everything.

As the Hurricane Hunter is deployed to monitor Isaac, researchers at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are in the process of acquiring two unmanned military-surplus Global Hawk spy drones— built by Northrop Grumman—which could be used to gather hurricane data in the future.

The spy drones carry sophisticated radar, lidar, and other systems to measure wind speed and direction, droplets of precipitation, and sea spray on the surface of the ocean below the storm. Although the drones are extremely large—with a 115-foot-wingspan—and won’t be able to fly right into the heart of a hurricane, they will prove useful in collecting storm information from the surrounding area.

The NOAA also recently launched an experimental Wave Glider robot measure both wave movements and air pressure in a storm. The unmanned Wave Glider, from California-based Liquid Robotics is a solar- and wave-powered floating platform which can travel from point to point or remain stationary. And because it’s powered by the sun and waves, it doesn’t need to be refueled.

On a similar note, EMILY, a 65-inch watertight unmanned surface vehicle, originally developed as a remote-control lifeguard, is used by NOAA scientists to collect data on barometric pressure, air and sea surface temperatures, salinity, and wind speed and direction. An on-board high-definition camera can relay images back to NOAA.

So what hurricane technology can we expect to see in the future? There’s been some research around storm control and how we can prevent storms from forming in the first place. Hurricanes derive their force from warm surface water. Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to build turbine-equipped barges which will sit in the path of storms and chill sea surfaces with cold water pumped from deeper waters.

Photo courtesy of NASA

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