Capital Weather Gang

Inside Hurricane Laura: Join storm chasers studying the eye of the storm

As Hurricane Laura barreled toward the Louisiana coast as a Category 4 storm with an “unsurvivable” surge and “extreme” winds of 150 mph, tens of thousands of coastal residents evacuated to higher ground.

But a team of scientists from the Center for Severe Weather Research drove toward the chaos, making the trip from Boulder, Colo., armed with an arsenal of high-tech weather equipment.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Their goal: to scan the storm from inside Laura’s eyewall, taking unique measurements the whole time — nine hours straight.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

For decades, atmospheric scientists have been aware of bizarre, vortex-like wind patterns believed to lurk in the core of extreme hurricanes, but efforts to observe them are challenging. The features exist on a scale too small to be observed by standard weather radar.

But this team of scientists pioneered the idea of driving a Doppler on Wheels, a truck with a radar on top, into the heart of a major hurricane in an effort to gather high-resolution radar data.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

The night before the storm, a small fire stemming from a battery issue in one of their two trucks forced them to stop every six to eight miles to let the engine cool. Each stop lasts two or three minutes. Eventually they return to the highway, but go no faster than 30 mph for fear DOW 7′s engine may overheat.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Over the weekend, scientists Karen Kosiba and Josh Wurman had planned out how to position DOW 7 and 8′s twin radars in the core of Hurricane Laura.

Kosiba met Wurman when she was a graduate student at Purdue University, and the pair began participating in joint research. Since 2008, they have been driving into danger zones. For these scientists, the extreme has become routine.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

The secret to collecting data as detailed and revolutionary as theirs lies in taking calculated risks to set up for observation as close to severe weather as possible.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

The Doppler on Wheels is as sensitive as it is detailed.

Obtaining high-resolution radar data inside the core of a hurricane is a balancing act of knowing the limits of equipment while also pushing the envelope. That job becomes much easier in the eye of the storm, when winds are near calm.

Scanning from within the eye produces better data, too, because operating in heavy rainfall can reduce data quality by interfering with the radar.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

AP

Exactly 18 hours before landfall, the scientists weren’t poring over maps and charts of the storm’s projected path. They were pleading with the manager of an AutoZone in Port Arthur, Tex., to stay open an extra five minutes.

DOW 7 had suffered a potentially fatal flaw and remained abandoned 30 miles up the road.

The team was able to “MacGyver” a temporary solution, Wurman joked, that allowed DOW 7 to operate in the storm.

AP

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

The team hurries through their preparations just before sunset Wednesday evening, around the time a stunning double rainbow appears atop a backdrop of amber and pink.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Computer-model guidance had warned that Hurricane Laura could be a dangerous storm long before it ever became a hurricane.

The storm tied with Hurricane Kyle, which occurred in 2010, to become the fastest intensifying hurricane on record in the Gulf of Mexico.

It was a Category 1 storm on Tuesday, and 24 hours later, Laura was a dangerous Category 4.

Its winds spiked by 65 mph in 24 hours.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

During the storm, Kosiba and Wurman coordinate between both radars to make sure the team is poised to capture evidence of “mesovortices” and tornado-scale vortices, known as “TSVs.”

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

“You talk to the [hurricane] modelers, they see small [whirlwinds] in the models,” said Kosiba. She explained that these whirls can combine with the background wind of a hurricane to produce swaths of exceptional damage.

“As they whip by you, they’re definitely enhancing background wind. They’re moving so fast, they’re by in just seconds.”

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the doors to DOW 8 close, a ceremonious sealing off of the outside world, much like how it feels boarding a long flight at the airport. The first drops of light rain sprinkle the windshield, while the soothing rhythm of the truck’s diesel engine mixes with the drone of the air conditioning.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Bands of heavy rain pelt the windows as the rush of the wind gradually increases. Midnight nears. Awake since 6 a.m., Kosiba and Wurman rejoice in the downtime.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

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Erin Trieb

With the DOW’s radar scanning and successfully logging data, Wurman glances at the local National Weather Service’s data feed to gauge the position of the storm. The mood becomes more somber as it becomes apparent that the eye may miss the team’s radars to the east.

Erin Trieb

RadarScope

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

The eye came and went, and the DOWs never made it inside. But the data they got was still plenty useful.

“I think the data looked great,” said Kosiba. “I feel really good about that. We got nine hours of dual Doppler radar.”

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

About 3 a.m., it begins raining — inside. Wind-driven rain somehow enters the vehicle, awakening Wurman from his nap.

He and Kosiba quickly begin moving equipment, the water cascading down a tube containing wires and collecting in a rubber rut on the floor of the truck.

Wurman breaks out a roll of duct tape as he and Kosiba work to plug the leak. The truck continues to rock like a ship in danger of capsizing.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

The winds die down after 3:30 a.m. The four occupants of the vehicle drift to sleep. When they wake, it’s still dark outside — but eerily quiet. A sense of trepidation and unease lurks as curiosity sets in about the destruction that daylight may reveal.

Wurman and Kosiba begin silently packing up items in a rehearsed fashion.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

“It’s usually a slow burn … that’s my opinion,” says Kosiba, describing the team’s energy levels throughout the mission. The two had been working virtually nonstop for days leading up to the intercept.

“We’re basically surveying from dawn to dusk, looking for sites in the landfall area, looking at forecasts,” says Kosiba. “And then … he falls asleep,” she jokes, as Wurman reclines with his eyes closed.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

By 8 a.m. Thursday, the scientists are gone — DOWs 7 and 8 on their way back to Boulder. Until the next big storm, that is.

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post

Erin Trieb for The Washington Post