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Flying Through Hurricanes with Robbie Hood

Who are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Most people's eyes would be glued to the window -- or tightly shut -- when flying through a hurricane. Instead, Robbie Hood stares mostly at her computer monitor.

Picture of Robbie Hood and Mark Corlew in the NASA DC-8 aircraft
Hood is an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She's flown several times into the fury of the whirling storms. She claims it's actually not as scary as it sounds.

Image to right: Robbie Hood and crew member Mark Corlew on a NASA DC-8 aircraft used to fly into hurricanes
Credit: NASA

"The view out of the aircraft windows can be somewhat boring," said Hood, who served as lead scientist on two of NASA's missions to study hurricanes. "The aircraft is often flying through clouds so there is not much to see."

There is plenty to look at on her laptop computer, however. Her screen shows a steady stream of real-time data being collected by sensors outside the aircraft. Hood is particularly interested in how rainfall rate affects storm strength. (When water vapor condenses into rain, energy is released to the surrounding air.)

The goal is to use the data to better understand and predict hurricanes. Improved forecasts could reduce the size of coastal evacuations and increase the warning time for those in harm's way.

But why send an airplane into the middle of a hurricane? Aren't there satellites that can make observations from space?

Hood says that the aircraft data, when combined with satellite information, gives scientists a more detailed view of how hurricanes work.

"We're putting the storm under a microscope," Hood said. "You can see the storm structures in higher detail (than from satellites alone)."

Hood admits that she does peek out the window every once in a while. Especially when a break in the clouds at flight level reveals a pretty picture down below.

"The variety of cloud layers and types can be quite impressive," Hood said. "It's like seeing every cloud you could imagine all in one place."

Image of Hurricane Bonnie
Hood's fascination with weather and hurricanes goes back to her days growing up in Missouri. Raised on a cattle farm, she saw the positive and negative impacts weather can have. Hood's family also happened to be in Mississippi in 1969. That's when Hurricane Camille slammed into the Gulf Coast.

Image to left: Hurricane Bonnie, seen here from the NOAA-12 satellite, is one of several hurricanes Robbie Hood has flown through
Credit: NASA

"To see the kind of damage that it could do made a big impression on me," Hood said. She remembers the storm knocking out power, downing trees, and blowing the roofs off of houses.

Hood is also attracted to hurricanes because of their human-like traits. In fact, Hood has always been a bit of a people person.

"I credit my Native American heritage with my intense interest and appreciation of people," Hood said. "I think I like studying hurricanes because they act so much like people. Hurricanes have names and personalities and don't behave like we expect them to sometimes."

See previous Earth Explorers articles:
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Coming in June: Meet the scientists from NASA's upcoming Aura mission.

Related Resources

Hurricane Bonnie lithograph

Dan Stillman
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies