CCNY Hurricane Expert Flies Up Close to His Quarry

Professor Johnny Luo boarding the NASA DC-8 used on his mission. On Friday, September 13, he served as flight commander and directed the plane to be flown to Hurricane Ingrid, then situated off the coast of Mexico.

Professor Johnny Luo leads NASA Flight to Hurricane Ingrid to Study How Convective Clouds Transport Pollutants

Was Friday the 13th of September City College of New York hurricane expert Dr. Johnny Luo’s lucky day or unlucky day? That day, the associate professor in CCNY’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences led a refitted DC-8 airliner to fly to Hurricane Ingrid, then situated 20 miles off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, giving him a rare opportunity to study one of these powerful storms up close.

At the time, Professor Luo, who is also affiliated with the NOAA-CREST Institute based at CCNY, was serving as a science team leader for a NASA mission to study how clouds transport and process pollutants. NASA specifically wanted to learn how convective clouds embedded inside a hurricane help transport near-surface pollutants to the atmosphere. As one of the few hurricane experts working on the mission, he was picked to serve as commander for the flight.

After taking off from a NASA air base near Houston, the plane headed toward the storm, at Professor Luo’s direction, and it spent much of the eight-hour day flying in a circle-eight pattern near the center and penetrating convective clouds at various levels. The plane also descended to slightly above the surface of the Gulf of Mexico to sample pollutants that went into the storm.

Professor Luo compared the experience to being in a “labyrinth. First, it’s mostly a whiteout. Then, you keep getting surprises: at one minute it’s as calm as inside a gentle cirrus cloud, but at another minute, it’s as violent as being on a roller coaster.”

At one point, Professor Luo’s laptop flew into the air and he had to catch it. The airplane was experiencing 80 percent weightlessness then because it had flown into a strong convective cell.

Ingrid’s convective cells were not the worst he experienced during the mission. While flying into convective clouds over West Texas on another day, his aircraft experienced a temporary free fall – a strong updraft followed immediately by a downdraft.

Because hurricanes are powerful, organized storms capable of lifting pollutants from the surface into the stratosphere, they can transport harmful substances over large areas and long distances, Professor Luo noted. The mission obtained readings detecting various trace gases including formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. The data will be analyzed to gain new knowledge on how convective clouds transport and process these substances.

Flying into Hurricane Ingrid was worth the effort because of the precious scientific data the team was able to gather from inside the storm, he said. “You have to go to the lion’s den to find treasure, I guess.”

In January, Professor Luo will join an airborne mission team sponsored by the National Science Foundation to Guam to study convective transport of halogen species, a major threat to the atmospheric ozone layer. The area of the West Pacific Ocean near Guam and the Philippines harbors the world’s strongest convective clouds and was where the devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan formed.

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