A control room at Rutgers, where researchers can track the drone gliders in real time as they move through the ocean. Visual: Rutgers University

In Underwater Drones, a New Weapon for Hurricane Hunters

A researcher’s decision to put an underwater drone in Hurricane Irene’s path is helping to transform the science of hurricane intensity prediction.

IN AUGUST 2011, with Hurricane Irene bearing down on the mid-Atlantic coast, Scott Glenn, an ocean engineering researcher at Rutgers University, made a bold decision. While most other research teams moved their ships, personnel, and expensive hardware to safety ahead of the hurricane, Glenn left his data-collecting drone — a torpedo-shaped underwater “glider” about 6 feet long and worth about $150,000 — directly in its path.

Because that remote-controlled glider survived Irene — much to the relief of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which technically owned it — it may have helped to change the science of hurricane intensity prediction.

Hurricanes are considered atmospheric storms even though they can’t live without drawing fuel from warm ocean water. While scientists have long known that hurricanes leave the ocean below them substantially cooler as they pull up energy from warm water, forecast models have long assumed that ocean conditions are slow to change and therefore factor them in as constants rather than driving factors in determining a storm’s strength.

“It’s very simple,” Glenn says. “If the ocean’s warm, it increases intensity. If the ocean’s cool, it decreases intensity. So if you want to get the intensity right, you have to get the ocean right.”

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