Sep 12, 2023 - Podcasts

Inside the eye of a hurricane

What's it like to fly into the eye of a hurricane? Niala joins a team of NOAA Hurricane hunters tracking Hurricane Lee to understand the science gathered on these missions, and how it helps create the forecasts that millions depend upon.

Guests: Axios' Russell Contreras and Adriel Bettelheim; NOAA's Alan Hough, Jack Parrish and Kevin Doremus.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Robin Linn and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.


NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It's Tuesday, September 12th. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Here's what you need to know today: monitoring AI for hate speech. Plus, the FDA approves updated COVID-19 vaccines. But first, inside the eye of a hurricane. That's today's One Big Thing.

FLIGHT CREW: "That looks pretty clear ahead. Still looking more like a 2 9 0 out. Standby. 25 knots."

NIALA: This is some of what you hear onboard a NOAA Hurricane Hunter flight where scientists and crews fly into a storm to collect huge amounts of data…and over the weekend, I flew with them – on a plane nicknamed Kermit – into Hurricane Lee. I have lived through, and covered many, many hurricanes in my lifetime - but this was a rare chance to experience a storm in the air. Over about eight hours the dozen or more scientists on Kermit use instrumentation on board to collect not just the basics, like rainfall, wind speed and barometric pressure, but also so much other data. The plane for example has a radar that measures the size of the wave heights underneath a hurricane.

ALAN HOUGH: "Our mission is to learn as much as we can about the storm systems that are a threat mostly to the United States and in the Caribbean islands a lot of times.

FLIGHT CREW: You ready? Here. Can you call for it?"

NIALA: That's NOAA Corp Lieutenant Commander Alan Hough, after he gave me my safety briefing. I was the only non-NOAA person on this flight. Our plan was to get as close as possible to the actual center of the eye of the storm. The eyewall around that - has the most intense winds - and weather. We set out to do six passes in and out of the eye. Jack Parrish has been flying through storms for NOAA for more than 40 years. He was this mission's flight director.

JACK PARRISH: The tail cone that you saw on the airplane before we took off, that's a, uh, a tail Doppler radar. It's essentially doing CAT scans, in the vertical, on all sides of the airplane

NIALA: The pilots let me stay up in the cockpit for the first half of the flight. It's really loud on these planes, so I recorded us talking through our headsets. This is intense flying; the pilot team rotates seats often to stay fresh. Here's Lt. Commander Kevin Doremus.

KEVIN DOREMUS: "So, this particular storm is challenging because every time we've been flying through the eye, it's different and it changes…and specifically, it makes it challenging because the eye has been very, very small."

NIALA: I'm not going to lie - I stole barf bags from my earlier commercial flight because I was worried about how much of a roller coaster this was going to be. As it turns out - they have even better barf bags on board Kermit - but thankfully I didn't need them. The flight did have much more turbulent when I moved out of the cockpit and towards the back, where all the scientists were busy, including deploying weather devices that go through the storm called dropsondes.

FLIGHT CREW: I had about inner eye at about 20 miles, Okay, here comes the inner edge. Yep.

NIALA: We're on the inner edge of the eyeball. Now that I'm back at the back of the plane, it's a lot bumpier than it was up in front.

NIALA: And then… as we headed into our 5th pass into the eye - something went wrong.

JACK: We were going off to the northeast and doing a U-turn to come back into the center. And in the middle of the turn, in the middle of a fairly moderate precipitation and light turbulence, we had two different crew members who heard something underneath the airplane that was an unusual sound.

NIALA: That's Flight Director Jack Parrish again.

JACK: And anytime you hear anything that's unusual, you immediately take action to, uh, either minimize whatever might be going wrong or secure whatever might be coming loose in order to get the airplane out of that hurricane environment and safely back to, back to base.

NIALA: I asked Jack about the funding for these missions…and if he felt these crews needed more up-to-date equipment.

JACK:This airplane, we acquired it in 1976. So you get the idea of how long this airplane's been pounding through that kind of an environment, and we always take it out in the worst storms we can find because that's where the most valuable research is done. There are plans in the works in NOAA to replace these airplanes with up to four new C-130s. The biggest problem with the P-3 isn't really the age of this airplane. It's that the number of people who trained on P-3's that we can hire, and the number of spare parts to fix things that break on the airplane, those are becoming more and more limited every year.

NIALA: Last year, the government authorized $318 million to buy one more of a new type of Hurricane Hunter. Here's why all this matters: the information gathered on flights like Kermit's is central to our hurricane forecasts that millions of people, especially along our coastlines, depend on. And the U.S. is the only country in the world that does such extensive scientific research from flights into hurricanes. NOAA operates multiple hurricane flights a day…so we'll keep learning more about the trajectory of hurricane lee over the course of this week. And of course, we'll have the latest updates on Lee at Coming up: a new effort to monitor how AI affects civil rights.

AI and human rights

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Tomorrow on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are privately meeting with some of the biggest names in tech, like Mark Zuckerburg, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, to gain insight about Artificial Intelligence. It's part of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's push to lay groundwork for AI regulation. But, generative AI is already expanding fast without any regulation, and it's fueling concerns – especially around bias. So some organizations are taking matters into their own hands. Axios' Russell Contreras is here with the big picture. Russ, the "Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights" is launching a center to monitor how AI affects civil rights. What's the goal with the center?

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: The center wants to assess how AI could affect civil rights and human rights, how it could either perpetuate or fight racism, and monitor what this new technology is doing in the growing concerns around antisemitism. The center was founded by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. This is a coalition that's been around since the 1950s. Today, it has such members like the NAACP, Asian American, and LGBTQ plus organizations. They want this center to really dig in and monitor AI and come up with solutions and possible policies on how AI should be either created or looked at in the future.

NIALA: So big AI companies like OpenAI, Google, and Microsoft say that they've aimed to filter out the most egregious hate speech. How much do you think technology companies would say there was a need for a center like this?

RUSS: Well, that's really the important question. I don't think we know yet. This center, though, wants to start that conversation. And it may be just not about hate speech. It may be just reflecting our own biases as humans.

NIALA: Given the fact that regulation of AI In any way seems to be slow coming across at least a federal landscape. How much does this center think it can help speed that up?

RUSS: Well, the center wants to engage in all these policymakers and with lawmakers to say, look, here are some things that we need to consider. That of course is what's going to be division is how much do we regulate it? Various organizations like the Anti-Defamation League say, tech companies need to be open and transparent about their data sets and algorithms, because it is so young right now. What these groups don't want to happen, especially the center, is that AI gets so far down the road that there'll be no way to either regulate it, rein it in, and It'll be just a place like social media where it becomes a place of hate.

NIALA: Russ, as you talk to different organizations, whether it's the ADL or the NAACP, how are they thinking about technology and AI?

RUSS: Well, they're thinking about it in a number of ways. Of course, they're gonna call out the racism and homophobia and the bigotry they see. But there's also another side. They believe that AI could be used as an important tool to fight racism, to actually pose questions about our country's past. I recently visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where they were using holograms of people acting out real words of enslaved people, and in this place where there were people that were bought and sold, these holograms brought to life the legacy of slavery. Other museums are using AI to talk about the Holocaust. There are many ways that AI can be used, according to these organizations, for the cause of good, and not necessarily something that we should be scared of.

NIALA: Russell Contreras is Axios race and justice reporter. Thanks, Russ.

RUSS: Thank you.

New COVID vaccines

NIALA: The FDA yesterday approved updated COVID-19 vaccines – a key step in getting the new shots to Americans as early as this week. Axios' Adriel Bettelheim has more.

ADRIEL BETTELHEIM: The Biden administration had been facing increasing calls to make reformulated vaccines available faster, as infections and hospitalizations have ticked up since late July. Health officials have actually urged people concerned about protecting themselves against the late summer surge to wait until these new boosters are available. So what the FDA did was they gave the green light to shots from Pfizer and Moderna that are targeted against the variant that was the dominant strain circulating in the U.S. earlier this summer. Scientists believe the shots will be protected against the current dominant strain which is called EG.5 and another new strain called FL.1.5.1, which are both sub-variants of Omicron. There's a third, new COVID vaccine that the FDA is still reviewing. That is from Novavax. Health officials expect these shots will continually be updated every fall to account for new circulating COVID strains. And that's similar to the schedule for annual flu shots.

NIALA: That's Axios' Senior Healthcare Editor Adriel Bettelheim. That's all we've got for you today! I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening. Stay safe and we'll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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