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Underwater gliders are helping improve hurricane forecasts

These motor-less gliders travel hundreds of miles to collect data, improve forecasts, and save lives

MACON, Ga. — Every hurricane season, meteorologists are tasked with figuring out where tropical storms and hurricanes will go and how strong they'll be. 

Meteorologists have significantly improved the accuracy of track forecasts over recent decades, however, there hasn't been near as much improvement in intensity forecasts over the same period of time. 

Check out this chart from NOAA:

It indicates the reduction in error in track forecasts. The downward slope means forecasters at the National Hurricane Center have improved their ability to accurately forecast where the storm will go. 

Image result for hurricane  track error reduction

Unfortunately, there has not been the same reduction in error forecasting. Researchers at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are looking to change that.

Skidaway Gliders are motor-less, battery-operated gliders that can travel hundreds of miles and collect all kinds of data. They move through the water by shifting weight and buoyancy to rise and fall. Wings on the sides generate lift, and allow the glider to travel forward. 

There are several sensors on the glider used to collect information on sea surface temperature, salinity, density, and biological factors.

To meteorologists, these gliders are powerful tools. Since they can rise and sink through ocean water, they allow researchers to generate a temperature profile of the ocean. 

Much like weather balloons provide a thermodynamic profile of the atmosphere, gliders essentially do the same. 

This is important since hurricanes use the warm ocean water as fuel for development. Knowing how deep this warm water is, or how much warm water is actually able to mix to the surface, is critical to the forecast. 

Now that meteorologists have this data, it can be integrated into weather models and improve forecasts right away. Back in 2018, Skidaway Gliders significantly improved an error in the forecast for Florence. 

A 14 degree temperature error was corrected and ingested into the Navy's ocean models. This ultimately lead to a more accurate intensity forecast in the days following the error correction. 

This is life-saving research. In a time where oceans are changing, these gliders are providing information to meteorologists that would otherwise not exist.

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