People say emotion has no place in science, but sometimes emotion can be a catalyst for understanding.
That’s playing out in Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science, where Puerto Rican Angelie Nieves Jiménez is a student.
Nieves Jiménez was an undergraduate studying engineering and meteorology at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez in 2017 when Hurricane Maria slammed into her hometown of San Juan.
The hurricane brought torrential rains, a 9-foot storm surge and flash flooding that trapped thousands of residents. In the aftermath, thousands were dead, the island’s power grid was crippled and the survivors faced months without electricity or clean water.
Nieves Jiménez’s grandparents were among the many who lost everything. That catalyzed a desire to learn how to help people better prepare for hurricanes by deepening her study of hurricane forecasting. Now, she’s a graduate research assistant working to augment CSU’s Tropical Weather and Climate Research program by translating hurricane forecasts into Spanish among other things.
In doing so, she’s breaking barriers for Latina forecasters, making lifesaving information more accessible to Spanish speakers and — it turns out — giving the department firsthand insight into hurricanes because she’s flown into one.
Her experience increases the collective knowledge of the program, which has been around since 1984 and sends annual hurricane forecasts to more than 70 national and international reporters. The team’s expertise this year alone has aided 19,000 published stories with a potential news reach of billions, the university says. That’s a far greater impact than Nieves Jiménez could have imagined when she started down the road to forecasting hurricanes — before she knew those forecasts would come from cattle country hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.
“I find humor and irony in the fact that I forecast hurricanes and tropical systems from Colorado, a landlocked state,” she said. “But atmospheric science is my passion always because it’s a different way of helping the community in moments of crisis. If I can do that by helping them prepare for a natural disaster because of what I can communicate, that’s good.”
Nieves Jiménez received a five-year fellowship from the National Science Foundation to study in the Department of Atmospheric Science. Her interests involve tropical cyclone rapid intensification dynamics and associated rainfall. After graduation, she plans to return to Puerto Rico and to give back to her community just as many students who’ve lived through hurricanes and typhoons in the Pacific Ocean do, said Michael Bell, principal investigator of Bell Research Group and Nieves Jiménez’s professor.
“That experience is often what draws students to study the atmosphere and pursue a graduate degree at CSU,” he added. “That is also my own experience, as I grew up in Florida and was impacted by hurricanes as a kid. Those lived experiences help ground our research so that it is not just scientific curiosity, but is also impactful science that can improve the lives of coastal and island residents around the world through better forecasts.”
Hurricane forecasting from a cow town
CSU began forecasting hurricanes in 1984 under the leadership of William Gray, then head of the Department of Atmospheric Science.
If inland forecasting seems weird, Phil Klotzbach, a senior research scientist in the department, and lead author of the hurricane forecasts since Gray died in 2016, said, “You don’t have to live on Mars to study Mars. It’s the same with hurricanes.”
The lab team studies computer models of things like vertical wind shear — when winds blow at different speeds and directions at varying heights over oceans — hurricane seasonal history and large-scale ocean-atmosphere conditions to make their predictions. Their research helps provide new insights into the structure and processes that control hurricane intensification and rainfall to inform future improvements in daily weather forecasts, Bell said.
Team members do fundamental research to better understand extreme weather and work directly with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he added. And they study something any Colorado skier worth their weight in chlorofluorocarbon-free ski wax is attuned to: past and current El Niños and La Niñas.
The hurricane forecasts generally come out in early April. According to university models, they had a 64% accuracy rate between 2014 and 2022.
This year, the researchers increased the number of named storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes they predicted from 15 to 18. But don’t expect Klotzbach to make any Atlantic forecast-ski season snowfall predictions.
“Talk to Joel Gratz (founding meteorologist of OpenSnow, which provides daily snowfall updates to skiers) about that,” he said. “Although we did get remnant (hurricane) moisture (in September), which brought a good amount of rain across the Front Range and farther west, well-inland. So, hurricanes either in the Atlantic or Eastern Pacific can bring moisture to Colorado.”
Nieves Jiménez is in her second year in the department. Her experience of flying into Hurricane Franklin, which became 2023’s first major hurricane, impacting the Greater Antilles and Bermuda on Aug. 28, provided an added layer of understanding about hurricanes to the team.
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She recalls the experience as “very different than when you’re on the ground where a hurricane is striking and you have the fear of something that’s not in your control.” Instead, a planned flight is safe and structured, she said.
Her crew left St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, at 6:30 a.m. Aug. 26, when Franklin was still developing. They were making a NOAA Hurricane Hunter flight to collect several different measurements on Franklin. An hour out, they were over the Eastern Caribbean Sea at the edge of the storm, where Franklin was moving over open water.
The pilot flew in, and the scientists collected real-time data on things like wind pressure, humidity and temperature, which all offer clues to the storm’s severity. The data then went to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, “and they were able to upgrade Franklin from a tropical storm to a Category 1,” Nieves Jiménez added.
As for what flying into Franklin felt like, Nieves Jiménez said penetrating the winds in the hurricane eye wall was difficult. But once they were in the storm’s eye, “it was very calm, and you could see the sun and some small clouds above you.” At about 10 miles across and an imperfect circle, the eye was still forming. But the flight and research were invaluable “because observational data is exact, when maybe a satellite can predict winds of 50 knots when they’ve actually grown to 80.”
That seems like a fairly big discrepancy during a time when hurricanes are becoming more severe and communities like Nieves Jiménez’s need to batten down the hatches.