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Surfing Into Hurricanes in the Name of Science

As you read this today, Tropical Storm Elsa is strengthening off Florida’s Gulf Coast while some new high-tech, robotic surfboards would like nothing better than to be sailing into the eye of the storm.

For dealers and marina operators from the Texas Gulf Coast to the Gulf of Maine, hurricane season is a time to have a plan and prepare early when tropical cyclones may approach. And this year is definitely not an exception.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration appears to be right on target with its predictions that 2021 will equal last year’s most active Atlantic season, which saw 11 tropical storms and 14 hurricanes take aim at the U.S. We’re already on our fifth named storm just five weeks into hurricane season, and 77 percent of such storms and 87 percent of all hurricanes form from August through October.

Meanwhile, an Alameda, Calif., company called Saildrone is partnering with NOAA to drive robotic surfboards into the paths of hurricanes. Five of Saildrone’s latest 23-foot designs — dubbed “Saildrone Explorers” — are slated to be in the Atlantic’s hurricane belt this season, according to reporting in The Washington Post.

Data from the ocean surface during a hurricane is expected to give experts a significant amount of additional information to couple with data received from NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters and the Air Force’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. While satellites have also improved the ability of meteorologists to detect cyclones before they form, these aircraft are able to measure the interior barometric pressure and wind speed within a hurricane, which is critical to accurately predicting hurricane development and movement.

But data directly from the surface during a storm has been lacking, until now.

“Our goal is to get new insights into hurricane intensity and tracking with data that hasn’t been recorded, with surface measurements as close to the center of a hurricane as possible,” Richard Jenkins, Saildrone’s founder and CEO, told The Post.

Saildrone is reportedly the world’s leading collector of ocean-related data from above and below the surface. Its robotic surfboards measure ocean temperatures, salinity and chemical composition, and can map the seafloor. They even contain acoustic sensors that can detect the presence and quantity of fish in an area.

However, the conventional Saildrone model can only handle winds up to 50 knots. According to Jenkins, a newly designed wing is about half the size and will better handle hurricane winds. “It reduces weight, the center of gravity is lower, and it’s able to withstand stronger winds,” he said. The top of the mast holds solar panels and instruments. And there’s more.

These Saildrone Explorers also boast cameras that are expected, for the first time, to give experts a look at sea spray and foam. These byproducts of raging seas are directly involved in the transfer of heat into the atmosphere.

“The spray coming off the waves is very important in the hurricanes,” Jenkins said. “Our goal is to use images to understand how the spray and foam is characterized, which is crucial to the atmosphere and ocean exchange.” In the past, such measurements couldn’t be taken.

While Tropical Storm Elsa is not expected to hurricane strength, dealers and marinas in the cone of uncertainty are already taking action, or should be. A good example of taking precautions came Sunday when the popular Loggerhead Marina in St. Petersburg, Fla. — 327 boats in dry storage and 147 in wet slips — sent customers the following notice:

“As we prepare for Tropical Storm Elsa, we ask all high-and-dry customers: Your vessel must be at the marina to haul out no later than 3 p.m. on Monday, July 5, before closure of the marina. In addition, all transient docks will also be closed during storm.

“ALL WET SLIP CUSTOMERS: Check your lines and remove personal items from the dock area or seawall. Your dock box is the only object to be out per lease agreement. Please watch for email updates.”

Perhaps most unnerving is the fact that the official end to the Atlantic hurricane season is a long way out, at Nov. 30.

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