When Hurricane Gonzalo crashed into Bermuda on 17 October, 2014 it brought winds of over 100 mph, blowing down trees, knocking out power-lines and causing considerable damage to buildings, including the island’s main hospital. But there were no reported casualties.

One of the reasons for this was that the islanders had a very accurate forecast of where and when the hurricane would hit the island, which gave them plenty of time to prepare. The hurricane was being closely tracked by a range of weather satellites and “hurricane hunter aircraft” from the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose job it is to measure the eye of the storm and track, from close range, its fluctuating intensity and direction.

“NOAA uses two types of aircraft to gather data on hurricanes—the four-engine Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprop and a twin-engine Gulfstream IV-SP jet,” according to the agency “The P-3 flies at low altitudes in the midst of the storm and collects data on wind speed, temperature, and various other storm characteristics. The G-IV flies above and around a hurricane to observe the winds and weather conditions around the storm. This data helps forecasters predict its path, which in turn enables emergency managers to decide which cities and towns should be evacuated.”

The NOAA aircraft are managed and operated by the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) and operate throughout the world providing a wide range of capabilities including hurricane reconnaissance and research, marine mammal and fisheries assessment and coastal mapping. NOAA aircraft carry scientists and specialized instrument packages to conduct research for NOAA’s missions. They can also immediate response capabilities for unpredictable events. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita aerial images of disaster-torn areas taken by NOAA aircraft enabled residents and emergency workers to verify the condition of houses, bridges and roads.

Although satellites can provide increasingly accurate view of how and where hurricanes are developing only aircraft can give real-time measurements of atmospheric conditions in and around the hurricanes which can complete the picture. And the capability of meteorological aircraft to detect changes in local atmospheric conditions is increasing our understanding of the factors that contribute to climate change. In early 2014 a BAe 146 Atmospheric Research Aircraft (ARA) of the UK Met Office and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), managed by the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM), flew to an area just north of Papua New Guinea to study the chemical and physical properties of the tropical tropopause layer and their impacts on controlling the composition of the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.

But it is not just specialist aircraft that are providing invaluable data about our climate.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) global Aircraft Meteorological DAta Relay (AMDAR) system now produces over 300,000 high-quality observations per day of air temperature and wind speed and direction, together with the required positional and temporal information and with an increasing number of humidity and turbulence measurements being made.

“Aircraft-based observations have made a significant contribution to upper-air monitoring of the atmosphere for many decades,” says the WMO. “Initially, this contribution was limited to PIlot REPorts (PIREP), consisting of little more than radio communications from pilots back to the ground regarding weather phenomena and conditions encountered during flight. Later, with the advent of more sophisticated onboard equipment and avionics, such reports would be standardised and eventually automated into AIRcraft REPorts (AIREPS) of measured weather variables including air temperature and wind speed and direction, provided with positional information…In recent decades, the use of the aircraft platform for the automated collection of meteorological data has been considerably enhanced and expanded so as to provide more accurate, more timely and, most importantly a much greater volume of upper-air data in support of data users and meteorological applications, including support for weather-related forecasting and monitoring for the aviation industry.”