North Carolina

As Hurricane Florence churns overhead, torpedo-shaped robots will track it from below

While Hurricane Florence rocks the skies above, two missile-shaped underwater robots will be zooming through the ocean tracking the storm and collecting data that could help scientists learn how it’s behaving.

The two devices, called ocean gliders, were deployed from the Outer Banks of North Carolina and from off the coast of South Carolina, according to a news release from the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association.

The gliders cut through the water all by themselves after being programmed by humans, making them ideal for working in hazardous environments — such as within active hurricane cells, according to NOAA.

As they move, the gliders take measurements of the ocean’s saltiness, temperature, current, movement and other data. Scientists can use this data to better predict how the hurricane is performing right at its most active site.

“If you want to improve prediction of how hurricanes gain strength or weaken as they travel over the ocean, it’s critical to take the ocean’s temperature and measure how salty it is,” said Gustavo Goni, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, in a NOAA news release.

If there are lower concentrations of salt near the top of the water, it can form a “cap” that keeps warm water at the surface and colder water below, which can make hurricanes stronger, according to NOAA.

That’s part of what the two gliders, known as RAMSES and PELAGIA, be testing for with Florence.

“Colder, denser water is beneath the warmer less-dense surface waters. The gliders will help identify how hurricanes mix sub-surface and surface waters. This will enable scientists and meteorologists to determine if the cold water mixing into the warmer surface waters will weaken the hurricane,” SECOORA wrote.

The gliders move up and down through the water throughout the day in a “jackknife” pattern, taking readings and surfacing every now and again to transmit the information to satellites — even under furious storm conditions, according to the organization.

They do this by allowing water into their noses, causing them to slowly sink, Popular Science reported. When they get to the bottom the water is pushed back out, letting the gliders flow back up the surface.

“The real power of all these things is they all have different ways of sampling through space and time,” said Scott Glenn, a researcher at Rutgers University who worked on the devices in 2013, according to the magazine. “It’s really the power of putting them all together that you really go after this unseen world.”

You can track exactly where the gliders are in real time, and even take a look at the data they’re collecting, with an interactive map from NOAA. You can also see where all the other gliders are across the world. Many can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, on the West Coast and around Puerto Rico.

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