In the eye of a real tiger

September 5, 2003

In the autumn of 1984 I spent several months at the Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Florida, and flew with hurricane researchers into the eye of hurricanes. The P-3 aircraft we flew in was equipped with a Doppler radar, that was being used to study the structure of the hurricanes. David Toomey, in his riveting account of the history of US-military airborne reconnaissance missions into hurricanes, notes that "technology has a way of numbing us to history".

Although the sensation of penetrating the turbulent eyewall and breaking out into the calm, stadium-like panorama of clouds inside the eye, 3km above the churning ocean, was breathtaking, the flights seemed routine, or, in Toomey's word, numbing, and there was no hint of the dangers presented to the pioneers who had flown without the benefit of satellites to locate storms precisely, without computer models to forecast storm movement and changes in intensity, and unaware of the safest altitude at which to fly through storms.

Toomey's narrative centres on an ill-fated US Navy flight in 1955 into Hurricane Janet. The story, both actual and hypothesised, of the crew, its families and its flight, is interspersed with a lively and informative history of flights into hurricanes and hurricane research. The title of the book is partly a misnomer, since "stormchasers" is a colloquial term used to describe the people who "chase" tornadoes; those who fly into hurricanes have been called "hurricane hunters", which is perhaps more descriptive of what was done in the early days of hurricane reconnaissance when the location of the hurricane was not known very well.

Hurricanes, unlike tornadoes, persist for days, so they are easy targets. Nowadays, their location is known very well and it is relatively safe to fly into them at high enough altitudes. Nevertheless, Toomey does an excellent job describing to the layperson what it is like to fly into a hurricane and the awe that must have been felt by the pioneers of this risky work. The roles that politics, technology, the media and human personalities have played in hurricane reconnaissance are all explored. The intense rivalry between two 19th-century American amateur scientists, William Redfield and James Espy, and their different theories of storms, are particularly well treated. The efforts of many of the significant early players are briefly noted as well.

Toomey suggests that the concept of "stormchasing" originated with the Englishman Henry Piddington who, in 1845, prophesied: "The day will yet come when ships will be sent out to investigate the nature and course of storms and hurricanes, as they are now sent out to reach the poles or to survey pestilential coasts, or on any other scientific service."

Just as the exploits of tornado chasers have been publicised by television and motion pictures, the exploits of hurricane hunters were also publicised by television during its early days and in a 1949 movie, Slattery's Hurricane . Taking meteorological measurements from aircraft, equipping them to fly into storms and establishing emergency procedures are all given consideration here. The naming of hurricanes and the first attempts at forecasting meteorological parameters using computers are treated in a lively and informative manner. It would have been useful, though, for the sake of continuity, to have seen brief accounts of some of the more contemporary personalities involved in hurricane research and how they built on the work of their predecessors.

While there are a few minor scientific inaccuracies, the overall attempt to explain a complex subject to the layperson is excellent. I highly recommend this book to the general public and meteorologists alike, not only as a poignant account of a tragic event but also to learn the historical context of hurricane research and forecasting.

Howard B. Bluestein is professor of meteorology, University of Oklahoma, US, where he specialises in tornado research.

Stormchasers: The Hurricance Hunters and their Fateful Flight into Hurricane Jane

Author - David Toomey
ISBN - 0 393 02000 2
Publisher - Norton
Price - £19.95
Pages - 314

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