Meteorologist Details Power of Irma and Maria for Science Group

A veteran meteorologist told a group of local scientists Saturday that he was awed by the details he was able to gather about Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Jay Titlow, a senior meteorologist with WeatherFlow, a company that deploys ocean wind and wave monitors from Cape Cod to the Caribbean, said he found some of the observations stunning. Maria clocked sustained winds topping 176 miles an hour. Irma’s top winds came in at 172 mph.

Some of those intense winds blew for up to two hours, uninterrupted.

“One hundred twenty minutes straight of 120 mph winds. That’s mind boggling,” Titlow said.

Titlow spoke Saturday at the first meeting of Ocean and Coastal Observing V.I. (OCOVI,) in Charlotte Amalie. About a dozen oceanographers and marine scientists from the University of the Virgin Islands viewed the presentation. OCOVI is a registered non-profit group supporting those who work with CARICOOS in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The intensity of Hurricane Maria grew so great during her passage from Sandy Point, St. Croix, to Vieques, Puerto Rico, the storm’s center of gravity collapsed and reorganized, Titlow said

As he watched the weather drama unfold over cable news channel CNBC and heard the data shared in real time, Titlow said he thought to himself, “Wow. That’s our site.”

Wind speeds of 125 mph were seen as far inland as 25 miles. At one point Maria’s winds strengthened by an additional 30 mph over a span of three hours.

“This storm exploded,” he said.

Typically when an eye wall collapses, the storm temporarily weakens, weather scientists said. But with the eye wall replacement comes a burst of atmospheric force that is only seen in the most intense storms.

“Perhaps worse than the eye itself,” said UVI Professor Emeritus Roy Watlington after the presentation.

But Irma’s might remained undisputed. Both storms were recorded as Category 5 hurricanes, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Hurricane Irma was the fifth strongest hurricane … on Earth,” Titlow said.

A number of devices are used to measure hurricane wind speeds, he said. Devices used by airport towers, microwave devices carried by plane measure sea spray. Sensors mounted on ocean buoys track winds, wave heights and current flow.

There are also weather balloons. Each method are reliable, but not entirely, he said.

OCOVI Chief Science Officer Doug Wilson agreed. Some regional airports decided to take their tower monitors down prior to the storm to avoid losing instrumentation, he said. That means storm-wind data could not be collected at those sites but the airports could resume operation with their instruments in place as soon as they were able.

“That’s their decision,” Wilson said while audience members groaned.

Then came the question from UVI associate research professor Tyler Smith about the integrity of the monitors, buffeted by high winds.

“How does the speed, at that magnitude, affect the accuracy of the sensors?” Smith said.

Titlow said some instruments left in place through the storm were lost.

The Caribbean Ocean Observing System Buoy deployed off St. Thomas was reported lost on OCOVI’s social media page Oct. 16.

“First Irma, then Maria swept through the corridor between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico where V12, also identified as NDBC#41058, was located,” the post read.

A few days earlier, on Oct. 1, OCOVI had reported it was sharing what it was able to collect during Irma and Maria with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The need for more and better Caribbean-based weather data could not be more timely, said former UVI President LaVerne Ragster.

“Right now the National Climate Assessment is being completed. This is the first time the Caribbean is being included in the document, and we can’t find the date for the U.S. Virgin Island, for the most part. What could be found came through CARICOOS and a couple of people who know the place,” she said. “We need better maps.”

Shared content for St. John Tradewinds and Virgin Islands Source.