Deep Heat

Shell and NOAA team up to improve hurricane forecasting
New thermal sensors are the key

By Kate Piserchia

There are deep pockets of warm water in the Gulf of Mexico where a passing hurricane, already a danger, can rapidly morph into a monster.

How and why hurricanes intensify is not entirely clear, but a move by Shell Oil Co. to install new underwater thermal sensors on one of its Gulf oil platforms may shed more light on this phenomenon.

“We’re still learning the mechanisms that cause a storm to strengthen or weaken,” said Steve Letro, the Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, Florida. “While we have a general knowledge of the factors that favor intensification, this is one of those cases where the devil is in the details.”

Some of these details may be found in data obtained from thermal sensors. Located on platform “Brutus,” the sensors will measure water temperatures up to depths of 328 feet. This data could help hurricane scientists make more accurate intensity predictions.

“You can get some idea of the heat by just measuring the sea surface temperature, but what’s really important is measuring how deep that heat is,” Letro said. “That gives you an idea of total heat content available to the storm.”

Installation of these sensors is part of a larger, collaborative effort by Shell and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to put data collected from seven Gulf platforms—including Brutus—toward hurricane research, forecasting, and coastal resource management. Oceanographic and meteorological data will be made available in real-time to National Weather Service forecast offices, NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, and the public via NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center Web site,

Gulf deepwater gas and oil platform operators already are required to transmit ocean-current observations to NOAA, but the provisions of the signed agreement between Shell and NOAA will transcend current federal regulations. Weather stations on four Shell platforms will receive upgrades, including direct transmission to NOAA’s geostationary satellites, complete with backup battery power, according to Shell Media Relations Coordinator Robin Lebovitz.

Other installations include high frequency radar transmitters off the coast of Texas and ocean wave and current instruments on platform “Auger.” Completion of all projects is expected in late 2009.

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