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Unmanned planes head into danger

NOAA sends aircraft to Arctic, eyes of hurricanes

By Steve Graff, For the Camera
Monday, February 4, 2008

Beginning this spring, unmanned planes will be recruited to go on research missions -- to diminishing ice shelves, the eyes of hurricanes and the hearts of heavy rainstorms -- deemed too risky for humans.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will spend $3 million and join forces with universities throughout the country, including the University of Colorado, in an effort to better predict hurricanes and flooding, and to study the effects of climate change.

For the first time ever, aircraft will fly as low as 200 feet over the Arctic to snap high-resolution and laser images of seal populations and ice shelves. Researchers hope to get a better handle on seal behavior, as well as the physical characteristics, topography and melting rate of the ice they rely on.

Extremely high winds -- in some cases hurricane-strength -- contribute to the harsh conditions in the Arctic that make it unsafe for humans to get such data, said Betsy Weatherhead, a scientist at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder.

"Most people that live in the Arctic know individuals that have died working there," she said. "We want to change that."

Since seals only live on the ice for a few weeks before heading back to sea, NOAA has a small window of opportunity to capture the photographs.

Her team will continue to use the aircraft -- which weigh about 45 pounds and have wingspans of 6 to 10 feet -- to monitor greenhouse gases, pollutants, and fish and whale populations in the Arctic.

Then, as hurricane season starts, researchers at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami will be looking out for storms brewing over the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

For that excursion, an unmanned aircraft will head directly for a hurricane's eye. Once inside, it will track maximum wind speed and storm physics, including structure, path and intensity, at dangerously low altitudes to help improve hurricane forecasts.

In November, NOAA had a successful run with Aerosonde -- an unmanned plane that spent a record 17½ hours inside Hurricane Noel, combating 75 mph winds to collect similar data.

And in early 2009, vehicles will fly solo through West Coast storms to study "atmospheric rivers" -- narrow regions of water vapor in storm clouds that fuel heavy precipitation. Ninety percent of the water vapor that is transported toward the poles is channeled into the "rivers" and can cause flooding in coastal regions.

By understanding the characteristics and behavior of atmospheric rivers, scientists can better predict flooding and give more lead time by issuing warnings faster, said Gary Wick, a NOAA physicist in Boulder who teamed up with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for the project.

"There are many science questions out there that we never thought about answering," Weatherhead said. "Now we can start answering some of those questions."

Original Post at The Boulder Daily