This afternoon, I observed the release of a specialized weather balloon designed to improve the 3 to 7 day predictions of Atlantic hurricane track and intensity as part of the Weather-In-Situ Deployment Optimization Method (WIDSOM) Project. The demonstration was held at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory on Virginia Key.
These specialized balloons will be deployed into data sparse regions of the atmosphere to collect data needed to improve hurricane forecasts. Published WISDOM goals for the 2008 hurricane season include full-scale deployments into two major hurricanes. Approximately 65 balloons are planned to be released from eight rapid deployment locations at altitudes of 12,000 ft and 26,000 ft. Each balloon will be equipped with a payload that can transmit location and wind data. The balloons will remain in the air for about 2-10 days.
WISDOM is a partnership between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). $1 million in funding came from DHS. Federal participants include DHS, NOAA, Department of Defense, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Industry and Academic participants include Engenium Technologies, Near Space Corporation, Raytheon, University of Miami and Mississippi State University. Students from the universities will be used to help launch the balloons.
In my opinion, the project’s late start may make the short term goal of collecting data in advance of two major hurricanes difficult for this hurricane season. Dr. Sharan Majundar from the University of Miami says this year should be considered a pilot project to make sure the balloons work. The future goals for WISDOM are aimed at multiplying the current effort several fold with hundreds of balloons deployed into the environment around a hurricane to flood the data poor regions.
Currently, NOAA’s G-IV jet is flown into the environment around a hurricane usually starting just before the watches and warnings are issued for expected U.S. landfalls. The hurricane balloons will be launched prior to flying the jet, and should be considered another tool in the toolbox for making better forecasts. Impact studies will hopefully determine that these balloon flights are indeed successful in improving model guidance used by hurricane forecasters.