Next Friday will mark ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and large swaths of the Gulf Coast. Ten years later and NASA is revealing the strides they have made in understanding hurricanes.

Scientists are always on the lookout for ways to improve all aspects of hurricane forecasting. From where it’s going to how strong it will be to the advanced warning impacted residents will have.

In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, scientists now know a lot more about what’s going on inside them and where they are potentially going.

How scientists approach studying hurricanes has also changed. “It used to be that we always looked for the mechanisms that allow hurricanes to rapidly intensify, but as of late, the question has gotten flipped around,” said Scott Braun, research meteorologist at Goddard. “Now we ask what are the factors that prevent a hurricane from intensifying.”

High wind shear, for example, is a hurricane’s worst nightmare. Wind shear is large changes in winds at various heights within a storm’s environment. These changes in wind tend to tilt the storm and weaken it. Wind shear effects on hurricanes has been known for a while. But leaps in technology have helped scientists better understand “how it interacts with storms to affect their structure and intensity,” said Braun.

Here’s what a satellite model of Hurricane Katrina’s wind speed looked like in 2005.

wind speed model for Katrina in 2005

This is what that same model would look like with today’s technology.

wind speed for Katrina 2015

The 2005 model is at 50-km resolution. The 2015 model is much more detailed at 6.25-km resolution. Today’s technology gives scientists and meteorologists the tools they need to better forecast what type of conditions are going to hit which areas.

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The next pair of images highlight the same differences in resolution, but this model looks at water vapor versus wind speed.


water vapor Katrina in 2005


water vapor model for Katrina in 2015

“By going to a higher resolution, we have this process by which the resolved scale of the storm becomes smaller and smaller and closer and closer to reality,” said Oreste Reale, a meteorologist at NASA Goddard. Reale is part of a team that, among other duties, assesses the ability of the GMAO suite of models to produce realistic hurricanes.

It’s not just improvements in technology either. The amount of instruments in on the ground, on airplanes and in space has never been higher. Earth observing satellites from NASA and other agencies across the world help monitor hurricanes and typhoons.

All of this new technology comes together to improve our understanding of one of the world’s most powerful weather phenomenon.

You’ve seen the images, now watch the video using today’s technology to show Katrina from the day it formed to its catastrophic landfall on the Louisiana coastline and beyond.

Image credits: NASA

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