FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Three large aircraft plan to attack the next hurricane that threatens the U.S. coast, hunting for rain bands.

The objective: Study the relationship between the bands and storm core to help scientists understand why systems rapidly intensify, a forecasting area that remains a struggle.

“In order to improve the forecasts, we have to understand what is going on inside hurricanes,” said Shuyi Chen, an associate professor of meteorology at the University of Miami.

Under a $3 million federal research project unveiled Monday, a Navy P-3 Orion, a rugged four-engine turboprop, will join two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration P-3s, which already are assigned to investigate hurricanes before landfall.

The three planes, flying different patterns and at different altitudes, will employ Doppler radar, GPS and remote sensors to determine wind speeds, pressure, rainfall and other storm parameters.

With that information, researchers hope to develop more sophisticated computer models to forecast intensity.

“There has never been an observational experiment, where we look at the inner core and rain bands simultaneously,” said Robert Rogers, director of the NOAA’s hurricane field program.

In all, five airplanes could be buzzing the same storm.

In addition to the three P-3s, a NOAA Gulfstream-IV high altitude surveillance jet will fly around the perimeter of storms to collect atmospheric information. And an Air Force Reserve W-130 hurricane hunter will feed critical forecasting data to the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County.

“It obviously requires coordination. We need to know where every aircraft is going before they head out there,” Rogers said.

The P-3 triad will be deployed for the rest of this season and could be busy. Up to nine more hurricanes are forecast to develop, and an unprecedented nine systems already have emerged.

The National Science Foundation is funding the collaborative project, officially called the Hurricane Rainband and Intensity Change Experiment, or RAINEX, and which includes several agencies.

After analyzing data from the research flights, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science plans to construct a state of the art computer-forecasting model.

The University of Washington and the National Center for Atmospheric Research will analyze the Doppler radar data. The Naval Research Laboratory is providing the extra P-3, which has a special Doppler radar device built into its tail.

While track forecasts have made great strides in the past 15 years, intensity forecasts have improved little, as evidenced by Hurricane Charley, which unexpectedly morphed into a Category 4 system before slamming Punta Gorda almost a year ago.

Although rain bands had been studied previously, scientists have found they can provide a destructive punch, even if the bands are hundreds of miles from the core.

For example, even though the center of Hurricane Dennis was in the Gulf of Mexico, one of its outer bands unleashed winds up to 80 mph and heavy rains, causing minor but widespread damages and flooding in South Florida on July 9.

“The outer bands of a hurricane often have strong winds and lots of rain, and that can actually affect the overall intensity of a hurricane,” Chen said.

(c) 2005 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-08-05 1907EDT

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