Hurricane Hunter
While most people are fleeing the hurricane, Jason Dunion '92 flies toward it

I UNDERSTAND WHY JASON DUNION '92 wants to bring me to the military airfield in Tampa, Fla. Yes, it's a four-hour drive from where we are this cumulus big-sky morning in Miami. Yes, it's a hassle to get security clearance at MacDill Air Force Base. And yes, the vaunted "hurricane hunter" planes might not be mobilized. We could get there, and depending on the updated forecast, they could stay in the hangar. But you know, when you are a 37-year-old atmospheric research scientist trying to explain the intricacies of what you do and why you do it, there are things that are helpful to see in person, and among them are the instrument-loaded multimillion-dollar aircraft that get you into and out of brawling Category 5 hurricanes.

"When I first flew in one I wasn't prepared for the feeling," says Dunion, a meteorologist at NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, the agency largely responsible for improving our understanding of and ability to predict Atlantic hurricanes. He's not just talking about the 4 gs, the lung-squashing feeling of blasting through a Cat 5 eye wall, or the "7 bag" flights (meaning the number of air sickness bags), or even the eerie sensation of being in the eye, where a plush pocket of calm contradicts everything you understand about hurricanes. He's also talking about the feeling that you, yes, you, a kid from Connecticut who liked to play weatherman in grade school, are directing a mission with several planes, including NOAA's $45-million high-altitude G-IV jet at your disposal. That you, Jason Dunion, the guy whose first job after graduating from UNH was as a social worker and who had $40 to spend in any given week when he and his wife first moved to Miami, is working hand-in-hand with combat pilots and a flotilla of NASA "A-train" satellites.

"The president once called when I was up," he says incredulously, "but we were in a blank spot where there was no communication, so we never knew." The environment of a hurricane eye is a strange place, and not just because you can't always get electronic transmissions or because the commander-in-chief sometimes checks in. Those who've been through the eye wall hundreds of times, like the P-3 Orion pilots Dunion sits behind, understand. Those who haven't had the experience simply can't. "It's kind of surreal," Dunion says. "When you're in the eye of a hurricane, there's blue sky and the sun is shining, but you know that just inside those clouds there are winds of 120 miles per hour." The latter is why hurricane hunting ranks, according to Wired magazine, as No. 3 in the category of most dangerous science jobs.

Scientists like Dunion, who are looking for clues as to what's happening with hurricanes—how they form, when they form and when they don't—are trained to survive emergency water landings and receive hazardous pay for each hurricane mission they fly. It's comforting to know that a NOAA hurricane hunter plane has never been lost and he's been spared the worst trauma—no seven-bag flights thus far—but there have been close calls. Like the time during Hugo, when NOAA's aircraft was flung about in a tornado-like updraft, or when colleagues of his flew too low during a New England winter flight and three of the four engines, doused with sea spray, shut down. One working engine does not get you through an eye wall. One working engine doesn't get you above a hurricane, either. So, well, it's grim. "They were seconds away from taking a swim when the pilot got one of the engines started," recalls Dunion.

On the other hand, a hurricane is a great place to do science. "We are curious guys," says Dunion who was nicknamed "whooty owl" as a kid because he asked so many "who, what, where" questions. Every scientist in the Hurricane Research Division is looking for a missing piece to the hurricane puzzle, and for Dunion the obsession has become Saharan dust storms. "I'm fortunate because there are lots more questions than answers," he says. What he means is that it's a relatively new field that offers scientists many avenues to study. And because the research is promising, he gets to use heavy-duty aircraft like the G-IV jet and the P-3 Orion aircraft, which can probe both the inner and outer surroundings of a hurricane. The sleek G-IV flies above and around the hurricane—the workhorse P-3 through it.

Dunion's dust theory, which he introduced in the American Meteorological Society's journal in 2004, is both complex and elegantly simple. Most big hurricanes originate in Africa—usually in the form of violent thunderstorms born from the combustible mix of super-dry Saharan desert air and moist tropical conditions to the south. As these storms begin to move over the Atlantic and build strength, they are sometimes infiltrated by massive dust plumes pumping out of the summer Sahara. The dust storms, believes Dunion, choke off developing disturbances, retarding their growth into hurricanes. Satellite imagery suggests that when tropical thunderstorms from Africa escape the dust storms, they can more easily reorganize into a hurricane. The implications for hurricane forecasting and perhaps even prevention are huge—can the dust be accelerated and widened to choke off more storms? Can the plumes be accurately tracked and directed? And what to do when, starting in August, the dust storms lessen? The months of September and October can often generate peak hurricanes—in 2006, the two biggest of the season, Helene and Gordon, formed in mid-September.

There are lots of good questions, and Dunion has already probed territory others haven't. Only a decade ago, the Saharan dust storm factor wasn't even a known consideration. Satellite imagery was looking at the moist tropical atmospheric layers, so Dunion is plumbing old data, including 1950s balloon probes, hoping to put together a picture of the interactions retroactively. One of the reasons he needs to get to Tampa today is that a shipment of cylindrical mini weather stations affixed to parachutes, called "dropsondes," have just arrived and need to be inspected. They are, says Dunion, one of the research scientist's best bang-for-your-buck instruments. Dropped out of the belly of an airplane inside the eye of a hurricane, they collect and transmit rivers of data on the storm's path and severity. "They're a good example of government working," he says, meaning the cost-to-benefit ratio of our tax dollars. It's also a big box with cool new stuff in it. So we go to Tampa.

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