Intensity matters in new tropical cyclone research award

March 6, 2014  |   |  Comments
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Michael M. Bell

Assistant Professor Michael M. Bell

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Assistant Professor Michael Bell has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Grant, recognizing his early-career work on tropical storms and his promising future in research and science education. He is the fourth UH Mānoa professor in two years to be honored with a prestigious NSF CAREER grant.

Bell is a meteorologist whose current research is focused on the genesis and intensification of tropical cyclones, a topic that is particularly relevant to Hawaiʻi and Pacific island nations.

“Our ability to skillfully predict changes in tropical cyclone intensity is still limited,” Bell said. “Intensity matters—it can mean the difference between a strong breeze and significant wind damage. So we’re working to identify the most important physical processes responsible for changes in storm structure and wind speed, and to use that knowledge to improve hurricane intensity forecasts.”

Twelve people have died in Hawaiʻi as a result of tropical cyclones since 1949. The most recent deadly storm was Hurricane Iniki in September 1992, which killed six. Tropical Storm Flossie in July 2013 triggered cyclone warnings across the main Hawaiian islands but ultimately weakened before landfall.

Bell will use a combination of Doppler radar, data collected from aircraft and dropsondes (weather instruments dropped from the aircraft), satellite data, and other observations to examine tropical cyclone precipitation structures, their thermodynamic and dynamic environments, and their impacts on the storm circulation. He has flown on research aircraft into hurricanes and typhoons to collect this data, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

“Doppler radar is one of the few tools that really allows us to probe deep inside the structures of hurricanes,” Bell said. “The radar data gives us information we can use to analyze the structure of the hurricane eyewall and rainbands where the heaviest rain and strongest wind speeds are found. Combining that data with temperature and humidity measurements from the aircraft gives us a better understanding of the relationship between the wind speed and the location and type of rainfall. It can help tell us whether a particular storm will weaken or grow stronger.”

An important aspect of the NSF CAREER grant is the integration of research and education, and Bell brings his experience collecting radar data in hurricanes and thunderstorms into the classroom at UH.

Doppler on Wheels mobile radar system

Doppler on Wheels mobile radar system

In October 2013, Bell was instrumental in bringing a Doppler on Wheels mobile radar system to Hawaiʻi for the first time, an effort that was also funded by NSF. The Hawaiian Educational Radar Opportunity, which debuted at the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology open house, provided a hands-on opportunity for UH Mānoa students to study the weather in the tropics. As part of Bell’s NSF CAREER grant, he will create a digital radar meteorology textbook with animation and data inquiry features, transforming the static images found in a traditional textbook into dynamic, interactive learning tools for students.

Bell is also interested in communicating the science of meteorology and the technology used to forecast the weather to the public.

“Our job is to understand the weather and to predict what’s going to happen as far out and as accurately as possible,” Bell said. “The radar and satellite technology is getting better, and that data and our knowledge is going into our models and improving forecasts. An important goal of this research is to help improve the confidence in those forecasts so that people can take action and stay safe when hurricanes threaten.”

A UH Mānoa news release

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