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New Tools, Info for Hurricane Pros

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ORLANDO — Hurricane season starts tomorrow but meteorologists have been getting ready for the season for several months.

People are familiar with the unpredictability of one of nature's most powerful storms.

Scientists are working constantly to learn more about how these storms work and how to forecast them. They exchanged new ideas and information at the National Hurricane Conference in March.

Greg Fishel, chief meteorologist at WRAL-TV5's WeatherCenter says, "I think every year you pick up on some new stuff and some new ideas."

Fishel attended the conference and learned of the advances that will be used in the coming hurricane season.

For instance, hurricane hunter airplanes are flying higher into storms, measuring winds to see which direction they may go. And planes are dropping data collectors into the storm. From this, meteorologists discovered that there are two levels where the wind is strongest in a hurricane: one at 3,000 feet and one at 300 feet.

"If you think about it," Fishel says, "a 30-story high rise, if each story is 10 feet, that would be at the top of some of those buildings, which means the amount of damage you could get might be a lot greater than you would think by what you're seeing on the ground."

Scientists are also looking forward to using another hurricane forecasting tool called Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. It's a NASA project where a satellite armed with radar can see what's happening inside a hurricane. It helps meteorologists determine how strong a storm might become.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, NASA research meteorologist, says, "I'm excited about this tool, in that one of the concerns with hurricane forecasting is being able to determine whether a hurricane will become a category 4 storm or category 5 storm. We can tell you where it's going, but we still can't tell you whether the storm is intensifying."

All of these new tools will make hurricane forecasting more accurate, but it still won't be perfect.

"I think the field is excited about the possibilities," Fishel says, "but we'd be less than honest if we didn't say we've got a heck of a long way to go."

Hurricane forecaster Dr. William Gray is predicting another busy season with 14 named storms. Five would probably stay at the tropical storm level and nine would move up to become hurricanes. Of those nine, four would be intense storms.

So the new forecasting tools are likely to come in handy this year.

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