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Dr. Steve Jayne, hurricane hunter

By Anastasia Devlin

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Chief Petty Officer Steve Jayne underway with Air Force Hurricane Hunters

Chief Petty Officer Steve Jayne, an engineer with Port Security Unit 301 in Boston, spent a few tense days working on a military base in support of Hurricane Florence, but not as a reservist—as a civilian.Jayne is a doctor of oceanography—and a hurricane hunter.

He’s been with the Coast Guard since 2002. After finishing his doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Jayne was working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution when a friend of his told him she was interested in the Auxiliary.

“I needed a hobby anyway,” said Jayne, who discovered he loved being underway, especially on the old 41-foot utility boat, the four-decade workhorse of the Coast Guard. Coincidentally, t’s how he ended up joining the Reserve—Jayne was already a qualified 41 engineer at Station Wood Hole, so it wasn’t a big step for him to jump from the Auxiliary to the Reserve in 2007.

At the time, Jayne was a senior scientist at the Institution, working on hurricane prediction equipment. He often works with Capt. Elizabeth Sanabia, a professor of oceanography at the Naval Academy. Every summer, Sanabia and Jayne work with a few chosen midshipmen to gather oceanic and atmospheric data to predict storm intensity.

“We could reliably predict the tracks of a hurricane,” said Jayne, “but not the strength it would be when it hit land.”

In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck late in the hurricane season, Congress approved funding for more hurricane research, and Jayne began developing new equipment to use the temperature of the surface water, and that of the water several levels beneath the surface.

The magic number is 80 degrees (or about 26 degrees Celsius), because once the water temperature falls below 80 degrees, hurricanes magically disappear. When the ocean gets warm, hurricanes form, using the warm water as their energy source.

For Steve Jayne, knowing how much warm water gets sucked up into the hurricane can help determine how much fuel the hurricane has on board, and that determines the strength at landfall.

Jayne developed three-foot long “floats” that contain systems for measuring the water temperature. The technical name for a float is ALAMO, Air-launched Autonomous Micro-Observer.The ALAMOs sink to 300 meters, then rise slowly every two hours, measuring temperature in the layers of water. The floats also contain a communication device, and when they get back to the surface, they send the data back to Jayne. He, in turn, feeds that information to the National Weather Service. But to get the most accurate information, Jayne needed to get the devices directly in the path of the storm. Using ships was out of the question, because as Jayne puts it bluntly, “hurricanes tend to sink ships.”

Enter the Air Force.

The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, a reserve Air Force unit out of Biloxi, Miss., has 10 converted WC-130J cargo planes that are solely used to fly into hurricanes. Jayne joined the “Hurricane Hunters” in 2012 just after Sandy, and remembered a conversation with the aircraft commander as they prepared to fly into a storm. Despite his close ties to unit, Jayne said the head of the Hurricane Hunters told him, “Sorry, you can’t fly with us. Only military members are allowed aboard for this kind of mission.”

Jayne laughed as he remembered playing the ace up his sleeve.

“I said, ‘Actually, I’m a Coast Guard reservist,’ and they said, ‘Yeah? Then grab your bag, let’s go!’”

“The integration with him as a crewmember has been seamless,” said Lt. Col. Kaitlyn Woods, the chief meteorologist for the Hurricane Hunters. “We all have our own roles on the airplane. He didn’t have any experience in aviation prior to coming to the unit, but he jumped right in, ready to go.”

Since then, Jayne’s flown into more than 50 hurricanes, all in the name of science. Last year, he flew into Hurricane Irma, his first Category 5, and the longest-lasting Cat 5 ever recorded.

It’s pretty rare for any of the Hunters to get worried about flying into a hurricane. They seem to live for these occasions.

“Maybe once a season, I’ll get nervous,” said Woods. “These airplanes are reinforced to take lightning strikes. I’ve been on bumpier civilian flights.”

He brought his floats with him. Though they weighed in at around 20 pounds each, as long as Jayne’s floats were skinny enough, they could be deployed from the plane’s five-inch diameter launch tube, strategically, 36 hours ahead of the predicted path. Jayne had reworked the measuring and communication equipment to fit.

Woods said the midshipmen who fly with the Hurricane Hunters have a second kind of float, the Airborne eXpendable BathyThermographs (AXBTs), which gather other data on temperature.

Last September, during the lead up to Category 4 Hurricane Florence, Jayne, Woods and the Hurricane Hunters loaded all their gear onto C-130s that flew to Savannah, Ga. From there, they flew toward the storm, right into the 36-mile-wide center, and then they traced the story’s path back to the east coast, deploying ten ALAMOs along the way.

“We have a one hundred percent humanitarian mission,” said Woods. “My job is to collect atmospheric profile data in the cyclone itself, and his job is to collect a profile of the water column directly below the hurricane. The more data we collect, the more it’ll significantly improve intensity models.”

The two scientists processed their data aboard the aircraft and fed forecasters’ models along the eastern seaboard, helping to update the public every few hours.

Helping others get prepared is Jayne’s mission. Giving people more accurate information means saving more lives.

“The biggest thing we can give people is lead time,” said Jayne. “With more lead time, you can be better prepared so people know when they need to evacuate.”