‘A Roller Coaster in a Carwash’: Why Scientists Are Flying Into Hurricane Beryl


Hurricane Beryl, which devastated islands in Grenada on Tuesday and is now heading toward Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, has broken records as the earliest hurricane ever to reach Category 4 and Category 5 intensity in the Atlantic Basin. Wind speeds of at least 160 miles per hour were recorded on Monday.

“There are so many superlatives to describe Hurricane Beryl given the time of year, the location and the strength,” said Jonathan Zawislak, a meteorologist and flight director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dr. Zawislak is a hurricane hunter, the title held by about 30 to 40 scientists, data crunchers and pilots based in Lakeland, Fla., who fly into hurricanes on three airplanes nicknamed Gonzo, Kermit and Miss Piggy. Both Kermit and Miss Piggy are equipped with Doppler radar on their bellies and tails that scientists use to create 3-D images of the storm.

Over the last three days, Dr. Zawislak and his team have taken off in Kermit from St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and navigated through the swirling eyewall of Hurricane Beryl. In a Category 4 or 5 storm like Beryl, the eyewall — the ring of thunderstorms, heavy rain and dangerous winds surrounding the center of the storm — is loud and bumpy.

“It’s like being on a roller coaster in a carwash, except you don’t know when the ups and downs will occur, or what the next turn is,” Dr. Zawislak said on Tuesday as he prepared for his third Beryl reconnaissance flight.

But the eye of the storm is calm. During daytime flights, Dr. Zawislak can look out his bubble window from behind the cockpit and see a quiet bowl of cloud with clear, blue sky above.

His job is to navigate through the chaos, finding the path for Kermit to fly between 8,000 to 10,000 feet while maintaining an airspeed of exactly 210 knots and flying the aircraft directly into the wind so they’re not pushed around.

Jonathan Shannon, a spokesman for NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center, said the goal of these flights, especially with hurricanes that change quickly, was to provide better data to better prepare for emergencies.

Since Dr. Zawislak’s first flight on Sunday, Hurricane Beryl experienced rapid intensification, which means its wind speeds have increased by 35 miles per hour or more over a 24-hour period. Part of the change came from an eyewall replacement cycle, or what Dr. Zawislak called the “ice skater effect”: the storm contracts like a figure skater pulling arms in tight while spinning. Pulling energy from warm ocean water, the storm replaces the old eye with a new one and reorganizes its outer wall.

As Earth’s atmosphere heats up, more storms are undergoing this kind of rapid intensification. A recent study showed that rapid intensification is now twice as likely for Atlantic hurricanes, at least partially because of human-caused climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels.

Beryl is a disastrous start to what Hosmay Lopez, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, said was the “most bullish” forecast the agency has ever made for an Atlantic hurricane season. NOAA predicts an above-normal hurricane season with four to seven major storms clocking winds above 111 miles per hour.

The forecast is based on the change in the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a natural climate pattern linked to warmer conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which is moving from a neutral state toward La Niña. The calm conditions produced by La Niña, combined with abnormally warm ocean temperatures, increase the likelihood of Atlantic hurricane formation.

As they travel, hurricanes stir the surface of the ocean. They churn up colder water from deep below the surface, which can dilute the storm’s energy, like stirring a cup of coffee to cool it down. But along with exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures that have shattered records for more than a year, temperatures are also higher than normal at greater depths.

“In this case the cup of coffee is very tall, so it’s very difficult to mix up cold water from below, even though you have strong winds,” Dr. Lopez said. Warmer temperatures at a greater depth give the storm even more energy to pull from the ocean, he said.

Hurricane season, which lasts from June 1 to Nov. 30, has historically been quiet in June and July before picking up in August. Hurricane Beryl beat the previous record-holder for earliest Category 5 storm, Hurricane Emily in 2005, by about two weeks.



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