NASA’s new storm observation satellites have captured the evolution of hurricanes’ structure

Constellation TROPICS from NASA

Three pairs of satellites make up the TROPICS constellation and will work together to provide microwave observations of storms on Earth, measuring a storm’s precipitation, temperature and humidity every 50 minutes. Credit: NASA

Observations made by NASAThe latest storm observation satellites captured the evolution of Hurricane Adrian’s structure as the storm strengthened.

In the last week of June 2023, the first hurricane of the season in the eastern Pacific made landfall off the coast of Mexico. Storm Hurricane Adrian moved off the northwest coast and posed no threat to the mainland. But Adrian has attracted attention for another reason, especially among scientists. It was the first hurricane observed by NASA’s new storm observation satellites.

This animation shows the cloud evolution of Hurricane Adrians from the morning of June 28 to the afternoon of June 29. Nearby, Beatriz was developing into a tropical storm, visible in these images as the least organized clouds closest to the coast. Credit: NASA

Data for the images in the animation (above) and series (below) were acquired by the TROPICS mission, short for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. The images shown were curated from nearly two dozen images acquired by satellites over this period.

As communities around the world are experiencing the growing impacts of increasing extreme weather, it has never been more important to get timely data to those who need it most to save livelihoods and lives, said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. TROPICS will provide vital information for meteorologists, helping us all better prepare for hurricanes and tropical storms.

TROPICS is a constellation of four identical CubeSats designed to observe tropical cyclones. The inexpensive satellites, about the size of a milk carton, were launched in May 2023 by Rocket Lab. Each TROPICS CubeSat contains a microwave radiometer that collects data across 12 channels to detect temperatures, humidity and precipitation around and within a storm.

The images in this animation were created from data collected from a single channel (205 gigahertz) sensitive to ice in clouds. Each scene shows the brightness temperature; that is, the intensity of the radiation detectable at that channel frequency moving upwards from the cloud layers and towards the satellites.

The cold brightness temperatures (blue and white) represent the radiation that has been scattered by the ice particles in the storm clouds. The colder the temperature, the more likely there is ice in a column of the atmosphere. Ice in the clouds is an indication of intense heat and moisture (convection) movement in a storm, noted Will McCarty, program scientist for TROPICS and program manager for weather and atmospheric dynamics at NASA Headquarters.

NASA TROPICS First light hurricane Adrian

Scott Braun, a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and project scientist for TROPICS, explained that the patterns observed in the brightness temperature data can indicate the location of rain bands, the intensity of convection, whether the storm has formed an eye, and how these patterns are changing over time. All are important to understanding how storms will evolve.

Structural changes in brightness temperature can help tell us whether a storm is intensifying or weakening, said Patrick Duran, deputy mission program applications manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. These structural changes are less evident in natural color images, which mainly show cloud tops. And some features, like the eye, often show up in microwave images before they’re picked up by infrared sensors on other satellites.

Some of these structural changes are evident in the animation and image series. The first frame of the animation shows the storms developing on June 28, visible as the warmer area surrounded by cooler areas associated with clouds and ice precipitation. Around the time of this image, NOAAs National Hurricane Center had recently upgraded Adrian from a tropical storm to a Category 1 hurricane. It continued to strengthen and remained a Category 1 storm throughout this series of images.

In the image captured at 10:58 Universal Time (4:58 local time) on June 29, the eye wall shows stronger convection and the eye appears smaller, which often occurs as a storm intensifies. At 10:18 pm Universal Time (4:18 pm local time) that day, strong convection was evident south of the eye, a new rain belt had developed on the north side, and the eye reached its smallest size seen in the image series.

Similar microwave measurements can be made with other satellites, such as the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission. TROPICS, however, has a time advantage. While the orbits of most science satellites only allow for observations of a storm every 6 to 12 hours, TROPICS’ low Earth orbit and multiple satellites can allow for storm imaging approximately once an hour. This is a big plus when trying to understand a fast-moving storm.

The high-review observations from TROPICS show detailed structure in the inner eye and rainbands of tropical cyclones, said William Blackwell, mission principal investigator at MITs Lincoln Laboratory. The rapidly updated data provided by TROPICS uniquely shows the dynamic evolution of storm structure and environmental conditions.

As TROPICS continues to collect data on tropical cyclones, meteorological researchers will learn more about the environmental factors that contribute to storm structure and intensity. Such information could prove useful to NOAA, the United States Joint Typhoon Warning Center, and international agencies responsible for developing hurricane, typhoon, and cyclone forecasts.

Images from NASA Earth Observatory by Lauren Dauphin, using data provided by the TROPICS team.

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