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How a hurricane-hunting drone can help inform "life-and-death decisions"

Hurricane hunting by drone

Government scientists know what it is like to stare a hurricane right in the eye. They've been doing it for countless storms by flying hurricane-hunting aircrafts and dropping sensors to measure the hurricane's strength.  

But for some members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hurricane Ian was the roughest hurricane flight they've ever experienced. 

Hurricane Ian hit land in southwestern Florida as a major Category 4 hurricane, just shy of a Category 5, as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. 

The rides are often bumpy and loud. But there is one place where even battle-tested airplanes and barf bag-proof scientists can't go. The boundary layer is located 3,000 feet where the air and ocean meet—considered a violent churning cauldron of wind and salt water. 

Joseph Cione, the lead meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told CBS News senior national and environmental correspondent Ben Tracy that it is essential that they find a way down there—by any means possible. 

"We still need to get down there. That's the thing. We can't avoid it. 'Oh it's too dangerous. We can't go down there.' Well, we as humans maybe can't go down there but we can bring our technology down there and send that data back so that it can be used," Cione said. 

One of the ways to get information from the boundary layer includes using an unmanned drone that can fly in and around the highest wind gusts. 

The drone, named "The Altius 600," weighs about 25 pounds and can fly for nearly four hours—feeding back real-time data.  

When the drone is deployed, its mission is to detect intensity changes within the storm.  

The fear for both scientists and forecasters is rapid intensification.The rapid intensification of a hurricane can give coastal communities little time to prepare. 

A recent example of a hurricane rapidly intensifying is Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey went from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 4 in just 24 hours before it made landfall in the United States. 

Research shows Atlantic hurricanes are now intensifying more quickly because of warmer ocean waters likely due to climate change. The earth's warmer atmosphere means they also hold more water and rising oceans can make storm surge more devastating. 

It's this knowledge and the data collected from the hurricane hunters that helped millions of Floridians in their decision to evacuate, possibly saving lives.   

"By having these observations that we would otherwise not have, we can tell forecasters and the emergency managers that make these life-and-death decisions, evacuating or not, if the storm is as strong or weaker than you think," Cione said. 

It also helps forecasters on the ground predict where a usually unpredictable hurricane can go and the data collected could help prepare for the next big storm.  

Thanks for reading CBS NEWS.

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