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Ocean Surface Topography from Space
Packing heat in the Gulf...
September 01, 2005

Image showing the Altimetry-derived sea surface height (color,
yellows are higher and blues are lower) and surface current directions<br>
(arrows) highlight the Loop Current and a warm ring (around 89W, 27N)<br>
in the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure 1. Altimetry-derived sea surface height (color,
yellows are higher and blues are lower) and surface current directions
(arrows) highlight the Loop Current and a warm ring (around 89W, 27N)
in the Gulf of Mexico. The trajectory over the warm ring corresponds
to a surface drifter and confirms the altimetry estimates.

As Hurricane Katrina barreled down on the U.S. Gulf coast, with ultimately devastating consequences, many oceanographers
and hurricane forecasters were paying close attention to the upper ocean thermal conditions in the Gulf of Mexico,
as the intensification of other hurricanes in that same region had been linked to the oceanic heat content.
Dr. Gustavo Goni and other colleagues of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Atlantic Oceanographic
and Meteorological (NOAA/AOML) were among them. Dr. Goni was able to monitor the change of intensity of
Katrina as its path went over the warm waters of the Loop Current and a warm ring shed by this current a few months
earlier. Satellite altimetry blended data, including those from NASA's TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1 missions, were
used to estimate the Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential (TCHP, a measure of the oceanic heat content from the sea
surface to the depth of the 26°C isotherm) in the Gulf of Mexico in near-real time. TCHP fields will be critical
to scientists and forecasters to better understand the link between the ocean and the intensification Katrina and
other hurricanes.

Altimeter data, combined with other remote sensing and in-situ data, are among the suite of tools currently being
used by forecasters to provide both long-term seasonal forecasts of the number and strength of tropical cyclones
expected in a given hurricane season and short-term forecasts of the intensity of individual hurricanes.

Artists concept of the TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason spacecraft flying in tandem formation.
Figure 2. Sea height anomaly on August 28, 2005. The path of Hurricane Katrina
is indicated with circles spaced every 3 hours in the Gulf of Mexico and their size and color
represent intensity (see legend). The hurricane intensified to category 5 as it passed near
the warm core eddy of the Loop Current, then diminished to category 4 by the time it struck
the coast.
In late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina passed over the Loop Current and a large warm core ocean
ring (Figure 1), it evolved quickly from a category 3 to category 5 event in a matter of 9 hours
(Figure 2). The warm waters of the Loop Current appear to have rapidly fueled the storm as it targeted
the coastlines of Louisiana and Mississippi, while the warm waters of the ring seemed to have helped to
sustain the hurricane intensity. However, more studies will be needed to confirm this and to know the
exact role that these two features played in the intensification of Katrina.

Results from current research indicates that the intensification of many hurricanes in the tropical
Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico may be linked to the variability of warm and cold ocean
water under the storm track, where some storms quickly grow stronger when they pass over warm water
and weaken in areas of lower temperature. Now, monitoring the thermal structure of the upper ocean
has become a key element in the study of hurricane-ocean interaction, especially with respect to the
prediction of sudden tropical cyclone intensification. Warm features, such as the anticyclonic rings
shed by the Loop Current and warm eddies, are characterized by a deepening of warm water (by tens of
meters) towards their centers, and by different temperature and salinity characteristics than the
surrounding waters. These deviations of the normal ocean thermal conditions produce variations in
the sea surface height that may range from a few centimeters to more than a meter and can be readily
be detected by altimeters.

Therefore, satellite altimeters can scope out areas of the ocean where warm water pools extend
deeper below the surface than the seasonal surface warm water, and are then available as ammunition
for intensifying hurricanes passing overhead. Moreover, the current suit of altimeters is now the
only available tool that can monitor these regions in real-time with the proper spatial and temporal
resolution for scientific studies. Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential maps, derived from altimetry
and sea surface temperature data, are produced in near real-time (one day delay) and are distributed
daily for all hurricane-prone ocean basins on the web
Similar maps are routinely used by the National Hurricane Center in Miami for improved hurricane
intensity forecasts.

Merged altimeter data for this research are provided by the Naval Research Laboratory and the
French space agency's AVISO data center.

For additional information, read the AVISO feature Hurricane Katrina intensification.

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