Scott Braun pulls up a big swirl of color overlaying a map of Florida on his laptop screen. It’s Hurricane Matthew chugging up the Florida coastline, flirting with disaster alongside millions of coastal residents.
Braun adjusts his owlish spectacles and traces a red line across the map. It marks the zig-zag path of an unmanned drone that’s probing the hurricane during a nine-hour mission.
“It was trying to pass over the storm, but there were some deep thunderstorms up to 60,000 feet,” says Braun about the Global Hawk scientific aircraft. “They had to deviate around it and ended up doing this weird pattern.”
Braun is inside the data visualization center at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center just outside Washington, DC. A bank of big video monitors display multi-colored maps of the storm. While forecasting Matthew’s path is the job of meteorologists at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami, Goddard is where scientists are asking big-picture questions.
For one: why did Hurricane Matthew jump from a Category 1 to a monster Category 5 story so suddenly last Friday?
Even though satellites, drones, airplanes and ocean-going drifters are giving Braun and others huge amounts of data, hurricanes remain a complex natural disaster to both predict and study in real-time. How hurricanes form, intensify and fall apart are still questions that need answers.
“When you are in the middle of an event its not always easy to figure out what you are going to learn from it,” Braun said. “There’s going to be a lot of people trying to figure out how this storm was able to intensify so rapidly given the appearance of unfavorable conditions.”
Braun said that last Friday, forecasters predicted the hurricane’s internal winds would pick up by 17 miles per hour. Instead, they increased by 63 miles per hour in one day.
“We are making progress collecting satellite and aircraft data is starting to shed light on it,” Braun added. “Sometimes its difficult to tell what’s cause and what’s effect.