Tuesday, October 17, 2006

We know that nearly all Atlantic hurricanes begin forming as tropical storms off the coast of Africa. The mechanisms involved are currently being investigated by the NASA African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analyses (NAMMA) Mission run out of the Cape Verde Islands. National Public Radio had a very interesting "live action" piece on the mission this morning which I am following up here.

The photograph at the top of this blog shows tropical storm Helene, which the researchers happened to catch in her infancy. Helene went on to become a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds reaching as high as 110 kilometers per hour (70 miles per hour), although she never made landfall due to high pressure conditions over the North American continent. As NPR reporter Jon Hamilton stated at the end of his piece this morning, the NAMMA scientists hope to learn how to spot "Cape Verde hurricanes" like Helene sooner so that people living in areas where hurricane commonly track on land will have more time to prepare.

Some of the "back story" of the mission is missing from the NPR story in that NAMMA has actually been studying African Easterly Waves (AEWs) and Mesoscale Convective Systems over continental western Africa as well as the small cyclones downwind over the Cape Verde Islands. One key atmospheric scientist in the mission, Paul Kucera, has been working in Senegal for at least two years studying rainfall there. Dr. Kucera's colleague at the University of North Dakota, Paul Le Hardy, is also working as a pilot for the mission.

A scientist prominently featured in the NPR story, Robbie Hood, works out of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Interestingly enough, she is part Cherokee (1/8th) and descended from the great Cherokee chief John Ross, who led the tribe west on the "Trail of Tears." Other mission participants whom I was able to track down are Bob Pasken, managing the data recorded by the meteorological dropsondes, and Gerry Heymsfield, an expert on cloud radar.

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