Fieldwork rocks: Head in the (funnel) clouds

Every year between June and November, researchers take to the skies to better understand and measure hurricanes. Heather Holbach is part of NOAA’s Hurricane Research division and is one of the scientists on the flight team who gets up close and personal with hurricanes. Flying directly into the eye of the storm gives her insight and information, that tracking the storms on the ground doesn’t. This field work is essential for informing forecasting models and the response on the ground.

This episode was produced by Molly Magid and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Jace Steiner.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi, Molly.

Molly Magid:                00:01                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                Okay, so this is different. So folks who listen regularly, Vicky, my Intrepid co-host is currently on a long vacation, and the way scheduling works, we had to power through without her. So Molly Magid, our producer of this episode, is also going to be my co-host and she gets to deal with me asking silly questions. So silly question for the week is, Molly, what was your biggest fear as a kid?

Molly Magid:                00:31                Yeah, so this is a hard question for me because I was a very anxious little kid. So there are a lot of fears for me to list. Definitely strangers, I think the dark, just a classic. Tornadoes, wolves was a big one.

Shane Hanlon:              00:50                Oh my goodness.

Molly Magid:                00:51                But one I like to talk about is possibly my weirdest fear, which is one I still have, is a fear of ants.

Shane Hanlon:              00:51                Ants, like the insect ants?

Molly Magid:                00:59                Yeah, ants. I mean, I know they’re small, they only cause problems at picnics, but they have the power of hive intelligence. And I remember reading, they can carry up to 50 times their weight. So if they all decided to get together, they could just carry me away. That is a big fear of mine.

Shane Hanlon:              01:25                Oh my gosh. I love… Love might be a strong word, but I’m fascinated by this image of just this hoard of ants, just basically you body surfing on a hoard of ants.

Molly Magid:                01:34                Yeah, that is my fear.

Shane Hanlon:              01:34                Oh my God.

Molly Magid:                01:38                Because they’re intelligent and if they form an enemy of me, they can take me away.

Shane Hanlon:              01:43                Oh my gosh, that is wild. That is so much better than mine, which I was thinking about, which is literally just talking to any adult. When I was a child, I just had this debilitating fear of talking to anyone. And while it’s not a fear of ants, I feel like it has lived on until today. Because if you asked me to call someone on a telephone, I would rather get carried away by ants.

Molly Magid:                02:10                Yeah, okay. I support that.

Shane Hanlon:              02:18                Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists, for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           02:18                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              02:29                And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

                                    02:35                All right, so what do childhood fears have to do with our episode today?

Molly Magid:                02:41                Right, so this is related to our guest today, Heather Holbach.

Heather Holbach:          02:44                Yeah, so my name is Heather Holbach. I am on the research faculty at Florida State University, but I’m also a cooperative institute employee with NOAA through the Northern Gulf Institute, which Florida State is a member of. And that is to work with NOAA’s lab down in Miami, the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

Molly Magid:                03:09                Heather’s childhood fear drove her to become a meteorologist and study hurricanes.

Heather Holbach:          03:20                Well like a lot of meteorologists, my interests started at a young age. However, my path is a little different than a lot of people that go into hurricanes. So most people experience some sort of hurricane as a kid, that sparked the interest. For me, I grew up in Wisconsin, so we don’t really get hurricanes there, but for me it was tornadoes. I was terrified of them and severe thunderstorms as a kid. So I started watching the weather channel a lot and I learned about flying into hurricanes, and so I decided that sounded really interesting and really neat and that’s what I wanted to do.

Molly Magid:                04:02                That’s so interesting that as a kid you were afraid of tornadoes and then your next move was like, I’m going to go fly through a hurricane. Tornadoes, they’re concerning, but hurricanes, I want to be inside one. That’s a big shift to me, but I’m impressed. Because as a kid I lived in Colorado and I was also very afraid of all the tornado drills and I don’t think that would be my leap in logic, but I’m glad it worked out for you.

Heather Holbach:          04:29                It might’ve had something to do with that my dad was a pilot growing up, so I grew up in planes and I love rollercoasters. So I think once I overcame my fear of weather and became fascinated with it, it was just kind of a natural progression for me somehow.

Molly Magid:                04:46                That’s great. I think it’s awesome to turn a fear into, actually I’m just really interested in this phenomenon, so might as well go study it.

Shane Hanlon:              05:01                Yeah, that sounds like a really fascinating path, but did I hear right that Heather flies into hurricanes?

Molly Magid:                05:10                Yeah, that’s right. As part of her research, she flies on hurricane hunter planes.

Shane Hanlon:              05:14                Oh my gosh, that’s incredible. What exactly is Heather studying when she goes on these flights?

Molly Magid:                05:20                So Heather’s research is primarily about surface winds on the ocean. I’ll let her explain more about what that means.

Heather Holbach:          05:27                The atmosphere is three dimensional, so we have wind at all different heights in the atmosphere. So I focus on the wind that’s closest to the surface. So in a hurricane, it’s primarily going to be over the ocean right near that interface with the ocean and the atmosphere. And then you know, can also have wind that we experience over land on a day-to-day basis. So whatever is closest to the ground level, that’s where I focus.

Molly Magid:                05:58                Okay, and how does that surface wind… What are the important aspects of it that you’d be looking for in a hurricane?

Heather Holbach:          06:10                Well, since most people live near the surface or on the surface, and buildings and infrastructure and all that is on the surface, we really want to understand how strong the winds are.

Molly Magid:                06:23                Yeah, that’s really interesting because while most people are evacuating and fleeing the hurricane, this plane and you are going straight into it. What does that feel like?

Heather Holbach:          06:36                It’s a mix of emotions, definitely. As a scientist there’s a lot of fascination in it for me. Being able to see what I’m studying in real time first hand lets me learn a lot about what I’m doing, and things I wouldn’t learn without being out there and seeing it with my own eyes. But when we have a storm that’s a potential landfall threat, that’s where the emotions really start to turn because what’s coming, you’re out there seeing it before everybody that it’s going to impact and you know how bad it could be. So it really gets interesting on the emotion side, but it also really makes you feel good knowing that you’re able to get out there and help collect the data that the people need to be able to prepare.

Molly Magid:                07:32                Yep, that makes sense. So okay, I want to get to the planes because I’m super interested in that aspect of your work. What do these planes look like? How do they differ from a commercial plane that most people might have been on before?

Heather Holbach:          07:51                Well size-wise, they’re a lot bigger than most people might think. They’re probably similar to a Boeing 737, a pretty typical sized commercial plane that a lot of people fly on. But the big difference is that most people are used to flying on jet engine aircraft, whereas these planes are turboprop, so they have propellers. They’re a lot noisier because of that, but they also have four engines and that’s for the aircraft that are meant to penetrate the storm. NOAA also has a jet that’s meant to fly up higher, and that’s kind of like a business jet. So what a lot of private people might fly on. We have one of those with NOAA, that’s meant to survey just the environment around the storm primarily and up high, whereas the P3, which is the turbo prop plane I was mentioning and the C 130s that the Air Force have, those are meant to fly lower and slower and go through the worst of the weather.

Molly Magid:                08:57                In addition to that sort of communication work, you must have a lot of scientific instruments and technology on board. Can you talk a little bit about what instruments are there and specifically which ones you work with?

Heather Holbach:          09:20                Yeah, so one of the things that make the NOAA planes unique is that we have the ability to fly research instruments in addition to instruments that we call operational, which are required to be on the aircraft by the National Hurricane Center. And so on the NOAA and Air Force planes, those operational instruments are the drops ons, which are expendable instruments or little cardboard tubes that contain instruments inside of it that we drop out of the plane. They have a little parachute on them that slows them and stabilizes them as they fall towards the ocean surface and they collect data the whole way to the ocean surface and send it back to the plane. So one of the roles that we play as a scientist on the plane is quality controlling that data. So we usually have one scientist that’s in charge of doing that, and then once it’s quality controlled, they send it off the plane.

                                    10:16                The other instrument that’s operational is the instrument that I primarily work with called step frequency microwave radiometer or SFMR for short, or you might hear it referred to as the Smurf and that’s on the Air Force and NOAA planes as well. And so that instrument is primarily used to collect surface wind observations, but also rain rate beneath the aircraft. And this is one of the primary tools that the hurricane center uses to determine how strong a hurricane is and how far are out from the center the strongest winds go. So my primary research right now is focused on making sure we fully understand how that instrument works and seeing if there’s areas to improve the observations that we’re getting from it. Since over the last few years, we’ve been able to sample a lot stronger storms since we’ve had more of them. And so it’s brought to light some potential issues that might need to be corrected with the algorithm or the process for retrieving wind speeds from that instrument.

                                    11:26                So those are the operational instruments on both the NOAA and Air Force planes. But one of the biggest instruments that make the NOAA planes unique are the radars that we have. So both Air Force and NOAA have nose radars that they use to navigate through the storm safely, but the NOAA planes also have two additional radars. There’s one that’s mounted on the underside of the plane that scans horizontally, much like a weather radar you might look at over the US. And then the other one is called the Tail Doppler Radar or TDR. And so that one scans vertically and basically takes a CAT scan of the storm as we fly through it. So we’re getting a three dimensional view of the rain and wind as we fly through the storm.

                                    12:19                And that instrument is being transitioned to operations right now, at least on the NOAA side. And it’s been shown to have a really huge impact on the models, making sure that the storm looks right at the beginning of the model runs. And in doing so, it has a big impact on improving the forecast. So our planes have been tasked operationally a lot more recently because of that instrument and how important it is. And we’re hoping to be able to get a version of it that’ll work on the C130s in the future. In addition, we have a couple of other instruments that will rotate on and off that are focused on various ways of measuring winds and humidity and temperature. One of them that’s really exciting for me is called IRA. It’s an instrument that can get a swath of wind information beneath the aircraft and really high resolution so it can connect the observations we get at flight level all the way down to the surface and tell us a lot more of the details of what’s going on.

Molly Magid:                13:30                As you’re speaking, I’m just thinking that your plane and the plane you fly on and the technology just sounds like James Bond. You guys are the coolest.

Shane Hanlon:              13:46                Oh my, I could totally see this research being in a Bond film like, oh, what would it be? Let me think, so maybe No Time to Fly or Live in that Fly.

Molly Magid:                13:58                Yeah, Fly Another Day maybe? I mean, replacing the word die with the word fly, that just makes most of them work.

Shane Hanlon:              14:06                Oh my gosh, this is great. So yeah, so for the next five Bond movies, it’s you and me, we’ll just play on the next handful of them.

Molly Magid:                14:13                We got it covered.

Shane Hanlon:              14:14                Since they’re doing it right now. Yeah, exactly. Who needs professional producers and directors and all of that. We can just do it. So now we know a little bit more about these very cool planes, but what’s it actually like to fly on them?

Molly Magid:                14:28                I would also just love to hear about what a typical flight is like. So could you tell me from takeoff to landing, what is it like?

Heather Holbach:          14:40                Well, we usually start the whole process for a mission about two hours before takeoff. We’ll start by having a pre-flight briefing where we meet with the pilots, the navigator, the flight director who is also a meteorologist, and the other science crew. Where we all get together and discuss the plan for the flight, what our objectives are, what our pattern is planned to be, where we’re planning to drop certain instruments, if there’s any research modules we’re planning to fly. Just so we’re all on the same page and understand what obstacles we might face, how much time we’re going to have, because it depends on how far away the storm is from wherever we’re taking off and landing. Then about a half hour to an hour before the flight, we’ll head out to the plane where we’ll start to set up our computers, make sure we have everything we need ready to go before takeoff, and then about 30 minutes before, we’ll gather with the entire crew.

                                    15:47                So this time it’ll include our flight engineers, our data technicians, and any of the other crew that are on the plane that weren’t at the pre-flight briefing. We’ll all gather and go over the plan again to make sure we all understand what’s ahead of us so we can have the most successful mission. And we also will talk about safety at that point, make sure everybody is fresh and knows what the plans are for safety if anything were to happen and people get assigned roles for what they should be doing in the event that certain things happen.

                                    16:22                After that, everybody gets to their stations and they start up the plane and we take off. And after that we usually have anywhere from an hour to three hours until we reach the storm. So in that time it’s kind of a get time to relax before you’re in the heat of things. Make sure all of the data systems are working properly, that we have all the communications working properly. And then once we get to the storm, that’s when things start to get really busy and we start to execute that plan that we had talked about.

                                    17:02                But one of the things that I usually do, I’m usually flying as a lead project scientist, my job is to look for opportunities for collecting interesting data that we might not have planned for based on what we’re seeing. But also if we encounter any issues such as not being able to fly into a certain location that we had planned or something like that, being able to work with the flight crew through the flight director to adjust and adapt as we are encountering different things throughout the flight. So you really have to be on your toes and we always say we need to stay ahead of the plane when we’re up there so that we can make those decisions quickly and have a successful mission. And then throughout the flight we’re collecting data, we’ll keep an eye on it, make sure everything’s working properly, make sure it’s getting off the plane properly and communicating whatever we need to.

                                    18:03                We also have to make sure, because we’re focused on getting data into a certain window for the models that are running, that all of the data’s getting off the plane by the time it needs to get off to get into those different model runs. And then once we land, we all gather at the back of the plane again and discuss how the mission went, if there were any issues that we encountered, if there’s anything that we should keep in mind for the next flight. And then after about 10 to 12 hours, we get to go home and get some sleep before we do it again.

Molly Magid:                18:45                Wow. That is… I, unlike you, do not like rollercoasters or turbulence. So being on a 10 to 12 hour flight that’s quite bumpy I imagine would be very difficult. And I am really curious, is the eye of the storm… What is that like? You’re probably one of a handful of people who’ve been inside the eye of storm, so could you describe that?

Heather Holbach:          19:11                There’s really nothing like it. The eye wall is typically where you get the most turbulence in the storm, and so you go from this region of really heavy rain streaking across your window and potentially a good bit of turbulence. Not all storms are very turbulent, but a lot of the stronger ones are, or storms that are changing strength tend to be. But you go from this really bumpy ride to all of a sudden there’s no clouds out your window. It clears up and it’s so smooth and it happens in a split second.

                                    19:51                It is the most crazy experience, but it also helps you understand what’s happening if you’re on the surface, how quickly that changes and how you need to be really careful if you are on the ground in the eye because when you go back out the other way, that change happens just as fast. You go from super smooth, sunny, potentially skies, clear skies to howling winds in a matter of minutes. So that’s one of the things we always try to remind people is you need to be really careful because those winds will pick up really quickly and can surprise you.

Molly Magid:                20:35                It also sounds super interesting how, just from the fact that your lab is a plane, you have to think about, oh well what if the plane can’t get there? You’re not the scientist on the ground who can kind of overcome a lot of those obstacles. You’re actually in the vehicle that’s taking the measurements. So anything that it does impacts you, that must be a really interesting experience.

Heather Holbach:          21:03                Yeah, it’s definitely a learning curve when you first start flying, how to make sure that you can keep up with the plane and stay ahead of it and adapt and adjust as you need to. And especially if the flight is turbulent, it makes it harder to look at a computer screen. So you definitely learn when to take advantage of the smooth times and how to overcome some of those obstacles of turbulence.

Molly Magid:                21:32                What was that first flight that you’d gone on like?

Heather Holbach:          21:36                Well, of course I was really excited because it was something I’d always wanted to do, but I don’t think I fully appreciated how much I was going to learn by going on that flight. Since I was first starting out on my project, working with the SFMR as a student. And the way that the SFMR works is it’s converting a measurement of how much white water’s on the surface, which forms from breaking waves or the spray from breaking waves blowing across the ocean surface, and that’s related to wind speed and how strong the wind is.

                                    22:17                And so actually going out there and seeing the ocean surface with my own eyes, how quickly it can change and how crazy it can get, was just so interesting to me and really eye opening, and helped me understand what it was that I was working on. And as a student that was invaluable. And so I didn’t expect that to happen on that flight. I thought I was just going to enjoy some turbulence or whatever and get to see some cool clouds. I didn’t really think about that aspect of it. So that really surprised me and I’m so thankful for that experience because it really helped me understand what I was doing and what I was working on a lot better.

Molly Magid:                23:06                Yeah, I’d love to hear if you have any specific examples of when, before going in the plane you didn’t really understand something and afterwards you were like, wow, okay, that makes so much more sense. Do you have any of those specific examples?

Heather Holbach:          23:24                Yeah, one of the most recent I actually had was on my last flight last year in Hurricane Ian. One of the things we’ve been trying to understand better with the SFMR is how it’s operating in really heavy rain. And I had an experience where we were flying through the eye wall and it was raining really heavy, but the winds were also… We were at the point in the storm where the winds should have been the highest and all of a sudden I saw the winds drop off on the SFMR and I was really confused. I was like, “This shouldn’t be happening. Why is this happening?” And that helped me realize, okay, there definitely is a problem here with this instrument that I need to understand better and fix. And so seeing that firsthand, experiencing it, seeing what it looked like out my window, having the full context of what was going on with the storm was really enlightening and something that I hadn’t fully appreciated up until that point, even though people had pointed out the potential for that problem in the past.

Shane Hanlon:              24:31                That seems like a big check mark in the field work column. I mean, this series we’re doing right now is on field work and we’ve gotten to learn how important it can be for researchers to get the ability to see and interact with their subject or whatever they’re interacting with, even when it’s as extreme as a hurricane.

Molly Magid:                24:57                Absolutely. And Heather’s firsthand experience with hurricanes helps to inform not only the response on the ground but also the field of meteorology in general.

Heather Holbach:          25:08                Given that my focus is on observing surface winds and hurricanes, that has a lot of implications for many different aspects of meteorology. It’s used to understand how strong the hurricanes are, which then goes into what’s called the best track database that many researchers use to study various different things. So it’s kind of like a cascading effect. If we don’t have the correct observations, it has impacts all the way through the forecast to the research. So for me, it’s really important that I can improve those observations since it has that kind of compounding effect throughout the field.

Molly Magid:                25:58                So we know that climate change is making hurricanes more intense. Has that reflected in your work, either in terms of being on the plane, or planning the mission, or where you’re able to go?

Heather Holbach:          26:13                Yeah. So it’s really hard to attribute specific things that we see occur every season to climate change. But over the last five or so years, we’ve definitely had a lot more major hurricanes that we’ve been flying, and that’s given us opportunities to learn more about what’s happening in those storms, that hopefully we would be able to apply if it does turn out that climate change is going to lead to more intense storms. Whether that be in the way we observe them or in the hazards that they produce. So that’s one of the main things that we’ve been doing to try and understand these storms better, so that we can forecast them better.

                                    27:03                And whatever we learn can also be applied in climate models to help them improve their forecast within the climate models. We are trying to broaden our reach and try and fly storms further to the east before they get to the islands in the Caribbean and the US, because what we’re seeing is the sooner you get data in the models, the better the forecasts are. So all of these kind of come together in the main goal of trying to understand these storms better so that we can understand what the future might hold with them.

Molly Magid:                27:48                Is there any flight in particular that comes to mind as the most extreme, either physically or mentally? Is there anything that comes to mind for you?

Heather Holbach:          28:02                One of the flights that I wasn’t prepared for the most was during Hurricane Lorenzo back in 2019. It was a storm out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It wasn’t a threat to land, mostly just a marine threat. But there was a ship that got caught in the eye of it when it was a category four and it actually sank. But we were the only aircraft in range that could get out there to search for it and any survivors. And so we were planning this big research mission and all of a sudden we got changed to having to fly a search and rescue mission. And that really hit home the seriousness of these storms and the importance of what we do, collecting that data so that people have it even over the ocean so that we can prevent something like this from happening.

                                    29:02                So we had two flights where we flew to try and find any survivors. They did end up rescuing, I believe, four survivors between the help we were able to provide and cargo ships in the region. So while several lives were lost in it, there was at least some good that came out of what we were able to do for that. So that was just a really different side to what it is that we do and what we are capable of doing until the Coast Guard was able to come in and relieve us.

Molly Magid:                29:36                I was getting goosebumps just hearing you talk about that. That must have been a really kind of in your face moment of, this is about the people, and how we report about the storm directly impacts people on land and in the sea. How does that make you feel? Are you reminded of that when you are flying on the plane? Or is it something that just in these glimpses you realize, oh yeah, our work is really important for people’s lives?

Heather Holbach:          30:16                Yeah, that’s really one of the biggest motivating factors for me as to why I continue to do this. Knowing that what we’re doing out there is having an immediate and direct impact on helping people prepare themselves to potentially save their lives and reduce the potential for loss of infrastructure and property. That’s really the biggest motivating factor for me, and I feel so fortunate that I’m able to contribute to that mission and so thankful that I’ve been able to continue doing it as long as I have.

Shane Hanlon:              30:53                Wow, that really hit home. I mean, it sounds both challenging and really rewarding to be involved in this work.

Molly Magid:                31:10                Yeah. And talking with Heather, it’s really easy to get caught up in the details of field work, about the planes and extreme flights. But at the end of the day, it is all about saving lives, either directly or through the information they collect on board.

Shane Hanlon:              31:26                Oh, absolutely.

Molly Magid:                31:28                This episode really brings a new meaning to the phrase, you’ve got your head in the clouds.

Shane Hanlon:              31:32                Oh Molly, Vicky would be so proud of you. Are you trying to steal my role as the pun master?

Molly Magid:                31:37                Wait, I’m sorry. Did you just call yourself the pun master?

Shane Hanlon:              31:45                Would also be very proud of you for checking me on my ridiculousness. So with that, I’m just going to run away and say that is all from Third Pod from the Sun. I want to thank you Molly, for bringing in this story and to Heather for sharing her work with us. This episode was produced by Molly with audio engineering from Colin Warren and artwork by Jace Steiner. And we’d love to hear your thoughts on the podcast. Please rate and review us. You can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at Thanks all. We’ll see you next week.

                                    32:23                All right. Yeah, that’ll do. Wow.

Molly Magid:                32:27                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              32:27                I mean, I’m not one to say anything, but yeah, that’s a pretty specific one.

Molly Magid:                32:32                Yeah, recently I moved, well not that recently, a few months ago, and my partner’s old garage where we stored some of my stuff, it was infested with ants, and so I made very sure not to take any food and leave it in there. But it turns out it was summertime and they were just starving for water, and so they infested… I had one of those Brita filters and also my French press, and they infested both of those just looking for water, but we didn’t know. So I was unpacking and I was like, oh, you know what would be nice after moving? A nice cold glass of filtered water. And I took the water filter up to the sink and it was just crawling with ants, and I felt like, yeah, it was just my nightmare.

Shane Hanlon:              33:18                Oh my gosh. This is like Hitchcockian almost. It’s your version of birds except it’s ants.

Molly Magid:                33:24                It is.

Shane Hanlon:              33:26                Oh my God, that’s even worse, that’s so terrible.

Molly Magid:                33:29                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              33:29                Well, I’m sorry that happened to you.

Molly Magid:                33:32                It’s okay. Thankfully we purged our house of ants. So, so far there’s been no sign of them.


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