Air Force Hurricane Hunters stationed on St. Croix pack up and head home


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ST. CROIX - The Hurricane Hunters were back on island this week to wrap up after hurricane season, doing some maintenance work and packing up equipment and supplies they brought down in May.

At that point, the unit - The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the 403rd Wing of the Air Force Reserve, based in Mississippi - was preparing for what members anticipated would be fairly frequent forward deployments to St. Croix, after experts predicted a busy hurricane season for the Atlantic basin.

This year, though, the experts were wrong.

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season actually had the fewest number of hurricanes since 1982, owing to "persistent, unfavorable atmospheric conditions over the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and tropical Atlantic Ocean," according to a statement issued by the National Hurricane Center.

The Atlantic basin had 13 named storms this year, but only two became hurricanes, and neither one of them grew into a major hurricane.

The 2013 hurricane season was the sixth least busy season since 1950, "in terms of the collective strength and duration of named storms and hurricanes," according to the National Hurricane Center.

"It was a very, very slow hurricane season, which was great for the islands, great for us, great for everybody," said Lt. Colonel Jon Talbot, who was mission commander this past week on St. Croix.

Typically, the Hurricane Hunters fly about 100 missions - each flight of the aircraft to investigate a storm is a mission - during any given hurricane season.

"We had the least amount of flights this year. It was a total of 34 flights for the whole season, and we typically do a hundred or more," Talbot said. "So it was the least amount of flights we've had since records have been kept."

Records of Hurricane Hunter flights go back into the mid-1960s, he said.

The Hurricane Hunters fly WC-130J aircraft into tropical cyclones and disturbances to gather data that the National Hurricane Center then uses to determine the status of a storm and make predictions.

Although they are based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., the Hurricane Hunters forward deploy as needed to St. Croix, where they can investigate tropical cyclones and disturbances that are within 1,000 miles of the island. The St. Croix location puts them in range to fly missions far out into the Atlantic, throughout the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Although the Hurricane Hunters tend to deploy to St. Croix fairly regularly during hurricane season - particularly during the peak of the season in late August and September - this year was an exception.

They came down in July for a training trip, then had two storm deployments here, according to Talbot.

Talbot, who is a meteorologist, said several factors contributed to the slower-than-average season.

"We had a really, really strong high pressure system in the North Atlantic and the air circulates counter clockwise, so the air coming off of Africa was a lot stronger than normal - the windspeeds - and picked up a lot of extra African dust, Saharan dust."

The Saharan dust tends to make the air dry and stable.

"It's very dry and stable air and that has a stabilizing effect on the atmosphere and that had a large impact this summer," he said.

In addition, some westerly winds developed that were a little stronger than typical, Talbot said.

"What was not foreseen, I think, is how strong that super-strong high pressure system that was in the Atlantic that caused all this dust would be," he said. "That basically killed all the African waves that come off Africa that form into these hurricanes at times. That was a big player."

The Hurricane Hunters were planning to stay a week on St. Croix this time, doing maintenance and packing up equipment to be flown back stateside for the winter. During the winter, they investigate storms from the National Weather Service.

While they were here, they also took some clothing they donated to the Queen Louise Home for Children.

They were scheduled to leave the island on Sunday, but they plan to be back in May.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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