Hurricane hunter aircraft (National Weather Service)
Hurricane hunter aircraft (National Weather Service)

The National Hurricane Center is facing a potentially dangerous shortcoming when it comes to observing hurricanes. The sequester, and its resulting federal furloughs, is putting a crunch on the ability to conduct critical aircraft or “Hurricane Hunter” reconnaissance missions, just as we head into the peak months of an active Atlantic hurricane season.

At NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (NHC), forecasters rely on as much real-time data about tropical cyclones as possible, including computer models, land-based weather stations, ocean buoys, ships, radar, satellite images and data, and aircraft data.

Aircraft data are an essential part of the forecaster’s toolbox because the planes fly directly into hurricanes to collect high-resolution measurements of the storm’s position, intensity, central pressure, and wind structure. They then transmit these data back to NHC in real-time for analysis.

Aircraft reconnaissance missions are primarily tasked when a storm is in the western Atlantic Ocean, or in other words, when it’s near the Caribbean islands, central America, the Gulf of Mexico, or the U.S. East Coast. This includes locations such as islands in the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Belize, Mexico, Bahamas, the United States, and many more.

One or two missions can be tasked daily for a single storm –sometimes more- depending on a storm’s location, intensity, forecast track, and proximity to a potential landfall.

While some research, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights are conducted by NOAA, the majority of routine reconnaissance flights are conducted by the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (53WRS) – a specialty component under the 403rd Wing operating out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. The squadron currently operates ten “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft.

For 70 years, the military has been responsible for operational flights into hurricanes to accurately assess their position and intensity, and to improve forecasts.

A civilian sub-unit of the 53WRS is stationed in Miami at NHC.  CARCAH (Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination, All Hurricanes) works alongside the Hurricane Specialist Unit to coordinate reconnaissance requirements between the hurricane forecasters and the aircraft crews.  It is also responsible for collecting, quality controlling, and distributing the data collected by the planes in real-time.

On March 1, 2013, a budget sequestration went into effect in the United States, which meant that about $85 billion was to be automatically cut in a non-discretionary fashion from federal programs.  That included the Department of Commerce and the Department of Defense, and meant that furloughs (unpaid leave) would be necessary to help cover the budget gap.

Within the Department of Commerce is NOAA, which operates some Hurricane Hunter aircraft (referenced above) and the National Hurricane Center, among many other agencies and centers.  On May 31, NOAA cancelled the furlough plan for its 12,000 employees.

Other agencies could not avoid furloughs.  Colonel Craig La Fave, Vice Commander of the 403rd Wing, told Miami TV affiliate WPLG that “while NOAA is exempt of the furloughs, we are not”.  The 53WRS and CARCAH fall under the umbrella of the Department of Defense (DOD) and are indeed experiencing furloughs: one day of unpaid leave per week from July 8 through September 30.

The DOD furloughs could present problems for the NHC forecasters who rely on the Air Force’s support.  CARCAH is a very small unit, with three people on staff to cover a 24/7 job, and  furlough days will deplete available staffing hours .

According to La Fave, there is a capability to reconfigure their furlough schedules to other (quiet) times during a pay period, at least through the end of September.

In addition to juggling around schedules, potential staffing gaps (in Miami) could be partially mitigated by some 53WRS employees covering these data monitoring shifts from Keesler. In this scenario, the 53WRS would be able to keep up with the requirements to reconnoiter a single storm, but possibly not two, and  almost certainly not a three-storm scenario, according to Colonel La Fave.

Under the crunch of three storms threatening land (it has happened), there may not be enough resources to carry out the missions, and NHC “may have to pick their priorities” La Fave said.  But, La Fave offered this assurance: “We will do absolutely everything we can given the restrictions of sequestration and the furloughs to protect life and property this storm season.  That is what we do very well”.

Once the new fiscal year starts October 1, uncertainty creeps back in with respect to both CARCAH and 53WRS staff availability.

Not having aircraft data for a storm near land could have a very real and very negative effect on the accuracy of forecasts.  To emphasize just how critical these aircraft missions are, Max Mayfield, a former NHC director and hurricane expert at TV affiliate WPLG in Miami, said he hopes the hurricane specialists at NHC “never have to make a forecast and issue watches and warnings on a significant tropical cyclone threatening land areas without aircraft reconnaissance.”

Beyond this specific problem, a hiring freeze in place at NOAA since late March has left about seven positions empty at NHC, a significant number for a relatively small center.  This includes the almost-vacant Technology and Science Branch, the vital group of people who ensure the computers, networks, software, and products are maintained and running smoothly.

Combined with expectations of a very active hurricane season, there are a lot of people wearing a lot of hats at NHC right now. The last thing they need is insufficient reconnaissance support.

* Special thanks to Kerry Weston, assignment editor at Post-Newsweek TV affiliate WPLG in Miami, and Max Mayfield, hurricane expert at WPLG and former director of the National Hurricane Center, for their assistance in this article.  See related piece from WPLG: Automatic-spending cuts impact Hurricane Hunters

* Brian McNoldy is a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. This article does not express or represent the views of the University or the School.