Hurricane season began early this year, with Tropical Storm Ana edging along the coast of the Carolinas over the weekend. Which means hurricane-hunter aircraft were already at work, even before some of the fleet had finished its annual awareness tour of the Atlantic coast.
This year the final stop was in Marathon, in the Middle Keys. The Keys are considered one of the nation's most vulnerable locations when it comes to hurricanes. But it's been awhile since the Keys have felt a storm's impact.
"It's been 10 years since Hurricane Wilma produced the damaging storm surge to many of our homes and businesses," said Jon Rizzo, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West.
Rizzo said the visit from the hurricane hunters is a good reminder to prepare for storm season — and a chance for Keys residents to learn how forecasters get the information that is then used by emergency managers who decide when to evacuate the Keys.
With one route out of the island chain, no high ground and the largest population center at the end of the line, the Keys' policy is to evacuate for any storm of Category 3 or higher. Tourists are ordered to leave ahead of time, so residents have time to board up and get out.
The hurricane hunters, flown by NOAA Corps and Air Force Reserve pilots, fly at the behest of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. They fly into and around the storms, dropping information-gathering equipment and getting radar cross-sections of the storms from the air.
It's "almost as if you were going to cut a slice of cake and look at the different layers of cake, so scientists can get a better idea of how storms are building, how they're decaying, if they're intensifying or if they're weakening," said Lt. David Cowan, a NOAA Corps pilot. "We're basically just a mobile flying laboratory for them."
This year's hurricane awareness tour took the planes and crews to six places along the Atlantic Coast, from Nova Scotia to the Keys. The crews then returned to their base at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where they'll be on call from the National Hurricane Center until the season ends in the fall.