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As Hurricane Season Ends, Storm Studies Just Beginning

The Atlantic hurricane season officially ends tomorrow (Nov. 30), but where hurricane season ends, years of work are just beginning for NASA researchers who spent the 2010 season flying a fleet of planes into storms.

The space agency's Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes mission, or GRIP experiment, gathered reams of data from multiple hurricanes and tropical storms during the late summer through September.

Using myriad instruments crammed aboard three aircraft, researchers were able to gather unprecedented observations of storms' life cycles, gathering data on vital signs such as precipitation, lightning, wind speed, and rotation as storms initially formed, intensified and eventually blew themselves out.

Scientists hope the data will help improve their understanding of the still-mysterious processes that govern some storms' seemingly erratic behavior.

Scott Braun, one of the mission scientists, said the GRIP campaign coordinated flights with aircraft from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation, and with great success.

"By combining our resources, we got what I think are some of the best measurements ever obtained," said Braun, a research meteorologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"When you look at the aircraft coverage we got, it's just incredible," he added.

At one point, Braun told OurAmazingPlanet, six planes were flying inside Hurricane Karl at once, a record. The planes entered Karl Sept. 17, while it was over the Bay of Campeche on its way to Veracruz, Mexico.

Another first for the GRIP team was the debut of the Global Hawk, a hurricane-hunting drone. It was the first use of such an unmanned aircraft in hurricanes, and many scientists feared it wouldn't be able to handle the rough conditions.

"We proved it's possible, and we did extremely well," said Gerry Heymsfield, another of GRIP's mission scientists and a research meteorologist at Goddard. "The plane well exceeded our expectations."

Able to fly for up to 30 hours at a stretch, the drone crisscrossed storms long after the other research aircraft were forced to turn around and head home.

Now the long, arduous process of sorting raw data, refining it and eventually using it for research is getting under way.

"Certainly our hope is that we can turn these observations into improved diagnoses and forecasting of storm development and intensification," Braun said.

It may be two or three years before research based on GRIP data is published, but already Braun is in the planning stages for another field campaign, this time using two Global Hawks.

Braun said some instrumentation aboard the drones that never functioned correctly has been redesigned, and the planes will make some test runs in the coming months, in plenty of time for a 2012 study of Atlantic storms that already promises to yield even more comprehensive data.

"Global Hawk allows you to get storms that you just can't get to with the other aircraft," Braun said.

Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.

This article was provided by OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site to LiveScience.

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.