Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hurricane Hunter

Hurricane researcher and meteorologist Shirley Murillo has no fear about speaking before hundreds of middle school students. Murillo is the same scientist who has flown into monster storms for two decades with the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

On Nov. 13, Murillo addressed four large group audiences – Spring Branch, Spring Forest and Memorial middle schools as well as students at Westchester Academy for International Studies – and then spoke to community members in an evening presentation.
Murillo studies how storm winds change as hurricanes make landfall. During the past two decades, this scientific research has helped forecasters produce accurate and timely warnings for coastal communities ranging from Texas to the New England.

In her Spring Branch presentations, Murillo told students in detail how her research team flies into fierce storms and developing hurricanes to collect data.
She also described how her life’s work began with 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, at the time the deadliest of U.S. storms to hit South Florida.

“I did not live in Miami where Hurricane Andrew hit the worst, but I saw firsthand what a hurricane can do. I never thought that it could be so harmful,” she said.
From that childhood experience, Murillo turned her attention to hurricanes. She wanted “to be out there, be helpful, help people to evacuate and be safe.”

During her career at NOAA, she has flown into hurricanes for 15 years to collect important data on wind fields, wind speed, atmospheric pressure, storm strength and estimate storm surge at landfall. This data is crucial to both local meteorologists and public officials as they plan for hurricane watches and warnings.

“We know today that the oceans drive a lot of the intensity of these storms. We don’t want people to be hurt by storm surges,” she said. “We can’t stop a hurricane, but we can help inform and help warn, and help people evacuate and be safe on a timely basis.”

Her team flies into or around hurricanes on P-3 Orions, a four-engine turboprop plane, and also on a well-equipped Gulfstream IV jet. Loaded with precise instruments, some of which are dropped into hurricanes from the air, the teams fly for up to eight hours, often bumping along at 8-10,000 feet above sea level.
“I can get a call at a moment’s notice that our team may need to fly,” she said. “It’s great to be able to fly and to see science being used and applied in real life.”

Murillo’s visit to Spring Branch schools was made possible through a corporate grant from Chevron for the JASON Project’s middle school program. As a part of the JASON Project curriculum, scientists like Murillo who current works in her field are highlighted in online and in-person formats.
During her talks, Murillo talked about the challenge of being a woman and Latina in what has previously been both a mostly male and non-minority field of research and work.
She encouraged all students to find a mentor in their area of special interest. Support groups and a career internship can provide insight and powerful early learning lessons to students about careers of interest.  For more information, please visit the JASON website:


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