We’ve all heard about aerial drones. But not many people know the federal government also guides a fleet of underwater drones. These undersea robots don’t track and kill terrorists. They have a very different purpose: to track deadly hurricanes and save the lives of people in the path of the storms.
Last month, during the peak of hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (or NOAA) launched into the Atlantic Ocean 11 submarines, each about five feet long and eight inches wide.
Zdeka S. Willis, Director of NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System, showed one of the torpedo shaped, lemon-yellow machines at her agency’s offices in Silver Spring, Maryland, last month.
“This is a glider. Think about glider airplanes that just use atmospheric currents to fly. Well, this is our ocean version,” she said, standing beside one of the robots, which was hanging from the ceiling for display.
The submarine “gliders” have wings and a tailfin, which allow them to catch and ride water currents as they roam the ocean from Nova Scotia to Georgia.
The drone-like undersea fliers have heat sensors that allow scientists to monitor ocean temperatures in and around hurricanes. This is critical, Willis said, because researchers believe higher water temperatures produce more powerful storms. The potential link is attracting increased study as the Earth’s oceans warm because of greenhouse gas pollution.
It would be too dangerous to send people in boats into hurricanes to measure water temperatures, Willis explained. Robots are a safer alternative. The $120,000 gliders are part of a system that includes satellites, airplanes, buoys and supercomputers that help scientists improve forecasts of the destructive power of hurricanes, Willis said.
“You want to know where that storm is going to be, what precautions I need to take, and we also want to evacuate the least amount of folks that we can,” Willis said. “We need to have the preparations up and down the East Coast.”
History has shown that evacuation planning is often a matter of life and death. Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina was only a category one hurricane when she passed through the straights of Florida. But then she grew in strength before slamming New Orleans as a category three hurricane. NOAA researchers say part of what intensified the storm were sea surface temperatures that were two to three degrees Fahrenheit above normal.
“It is really important to monitor sea surface temperatures of the world’s oceans because No. 1, they are rising,” said Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “No. 2, there is considerable scientific data that shows warmer oceans mean bigger storms. And 3, we need to get a handle on how bad the warming is happening in our oceans so that we can prepare.”
How exactly do warmer water temperatures make stronger hurricanes?
Tom Knutson, a NOAA meteorologist, said the most first thing you need to understand is that hurricanes form only in tropical conditions. There are no hurricanes in cold places, like Canada. Warmer oceans, he said, evaporate more water into atmosphere, and this evaporation is like the rocket fuel for storms. Warm air also holds more moisture that becomes torrential downpours.
Curiously enough, as climate change continues, Knutson said he and his colleagues are predicting fewer total numbers of hurricanes in the Atlantic. This is in part because of changing wind patterns that will defuse some storms.
But Knutson said his computer simulations suggest that the hurricanes that do form will be larger and more damaging in the future.
“According to these simulations, that we’ve done, we tend to simulate fewer storms in the warmer conditions in the Atlantic basin but more intense on average --something like a 5 percent increase in wind speed intensity by the late 21st century,” Knutson said. “As a result, we simulate more of the very intense category 4 and 5 storms.”
Helping scientists predict when these catastrophic storms will hit is the mission of the underwater drones. But, of course, actually solving the problem of climate change is beyond the robots capacity. That would be up to their creators –- us humans—who would need to reprogram ourselves to stop burning so much coal and oil, and switch instead to clean energy.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation