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Delaware, Ohio, Native Helps Track Hurricanes for NASA
Steve Roy
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
(Phone: 256.544.0034)

News release: 06-071

Rich Blakeslee As the 2006 hurricane season approaches, NASA researcher Rich Blakeslee and his colleagues are studying data from a critical 2005 study -- one that could shed new light on the origins of these massive superstorms, and help protect lives and property in the future.

Blakeslee, a native of Delaware, Ohio, and now a senior atmospheric researcher at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., went to San Jose, Costa Rica, in July 2005. He was part of a team of hurricane hunters from NASA the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville – the joint NASA-university science facility where he conducts his research.

In Costa Rica, during the month-long Tropical Cloud Systems and Processes mission, the team tracked two major Atlantic Ocean hurricanes at the height of their power, witnessed the entire lifecycle of a tropical storm and captured astonishing Doppler radar imagery of Hurricane Emily, including "eye wall" storms rising to a rarely observed height of 60,000 feet.

The mission, primarily intended to investigate the birth of eastern Pacific tropical cyclones, proved more successful than the team anticipated, when a record-breaking, early start to a busy Atlantic hurricane season added numerous other research opportunities to the mission.

Throughout the month, NASA's ER-2 and NOAA's WP-3D Orion aircraft flew over and into a number of major tropical storms and hurricanes, carrying a complement of instruments that enabled scientists – for the first time – to use real-time streaming data, providing up-to-the-minute storm information. The team also employed small, unmanned aerial vehicles, balloon-borne weather probes and several NASA and NOAA satellites.

Blakeslee was principal investigator during the mission for the airborne Lightning Instrument Package, one of a host of data-gathering instruments flown on board NASA's high-altitude ER-2 research airplane. The instrument payload enabled Blakeslee and his colleagues to monitor buildups of electrical charges in the tropical storms, and to witness some of the most remarkable lightning activity and highest electric fields Blakeslee has ever observed in an oceanic storm.

"Typically, hurricanes do not produce much lightning in the inner-core clouds that surround the eye," Blakeslee said. Hurricane Emily, however, was fraught with powerful electrical activity and lightning – the result of exceptionally strong vertical winds swirling upward within its unusually tall wall clouds.

Blakeslee and other researchers would record similar lightning activity throughout the lifecycles of the powerful hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which slammed into the southern U.S. shores in fall 2005, causing devastation in southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Blakeslee hopes lightning data collected during the Costa Rica study and during Katrina and Rita will lead to new understanding of the origins of tropical cyclones. Such studies help piece together the complex story of cyclogenesis – the confluence of precipitation, ocean and air temperature, electrical activity and other phenomena that can give birth to a hurricane.

"Greater understanding of this process will be vital to understanding how hurricanes evolve, intensify and travel – the key to developing earlier, more accurate warning systems," he said.

Blakeslee, the son of Mrs. Jean C. Blakeslee of Delaware, Ohio, graduated from Rutherford B. Hayes High School in Delaware in 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Miami-Ohio University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1974. He earned a master's degree and doctorate in atmospheric physics from the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1976 and 1984, respectively.

A 20-year NASA veteran, Blakeslee has since 1984 pursued development of space-based lightning detection as a tool for Earth science and weather forecasting applications. He conducts a variety of studies in satellite-based lightning measurements, thunderstorm and atmospheric electricity research and lightning instrumentation. He is the author or co-author of nearly 30 research publications.

The Tropical Cloud Systems and Processes mission continued NASA's successful Convection and Moisture Experiment, or CAMEX research series, conducted with NOAA from 1998 to 2001. Collation and analysis of the enormous amount of data compiled during the Costa Rica mission is expected to continue through 2006.

Co-founded and operated by NASA and a consortium of state research universities, the National Space Science and Technology Center conducts cutting-edge scientific study in various disciplines, including Earth science, space science, optics, information technology and propulsion. Its personnel also foster the education of future generations of scientists and engineers by working with and inspiring students and sharing time, resources and expertise with educators across Alabama and the Southeast United States.

For more information about the Costa Rica mission, visit:

For more information about the work of the NSSTC, visit:

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