Storm as seen from storm balloon release site on the Jonathan Merage Research Ranch in Colorado
Steven Businger and Jonathan Merage. Credit: Jana Light

The Jonathan Merage Foundation has embarked on a long-term partnership with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) to explore how long-range lightning data can potentially improve storm forecasting.

“Through the ingest of lightning and storm balloon data, this project aims to increase our ability to map water vapor and heat associated with condensation of water in hurricane storm clouds in the core of the storm,” said Professor Steven Businger, chair of the SOEST Atmospheric Sciences Department and project lead. “In the process, details of the initial storm circulation in the hurricane model will be improved.”

In future years, the way the lightning data are ingested into the hurricane model will be refined, to provide a more sophisticated and balanced approach that improves the way in which individual storm clouds evolve in the model. A number of poorly forecast recent hurricanes will be targeted as case studies to spur improvement in hurricane simulation and prediction.

Businger has been a pioneer in storm balloon development and suggests that floating storm balloons at low levels into a hurricane will provide crucial data on the energy exchange between hurricanes and the ocean surface beneath. The goal is to construct affordable storm balloons that possess the needed buoyancy control to allow them to remain near the ocean surface as they move towards the eye of the hurricane. They also contain GPS for position information and Iridium satellite communication to send data back on the energy exchange that governs hurricane intensity.

“Hurricanes are the most destructive storms on Earth and our ability to accurately forecast changes in their strength before landfall has not improved significantly in 20 years,” said Businger.

The project began this summer in Colorado with the launch of the first storm balloon. The balloons for this experiment were produced in collaboration with Smith & Williamson, an engineering firm specializing in developing custom prototypes for atmospheric and oceanographic exploration.

“It was a picture perfect first release,” said Businger.

—By Marcie Grabowski