It’s been a year since Hurricane Maria rapidly intensified into a terrifying monster storm, and yet scientists are still learning about it. Now, they’ve pulled back the curtain to show the public some of the data they’re looking at.
Rather than releasing some wonky spreadsheet, NASA has turned the storm’s precipitation data into a surreal 360-degree video. Released Friday, it takes viewers on a walkthrough of Maria shortly before it metastasized into Category 5 terror. This is the first time NASA has ever created a visual like this, and it offers deep insights into how hurricanes form, sustain themselves, and grow.
The data comes courtesy of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite, which was launched in February 2014. The satellite can see through storms using specialized radar systems that measure humidity, the presence of rain and snow, and even the size of water drops all the way from space.
But all that data can be tough to really grasp, which is why the whizzes at NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio turned it into something a little easier to understand. The visual feels like walking into a forest where rain is represented by a rainbow of dots from green to purple. Frozen precipitation found at the chilly cloud tops comes in various shades of blue.
The visual moves a little deeper by turning the dots into numbers that show millimeters of precipitation per hour. Those rainfall rates can give scientists a clue of what’s going on inside the storm and how it might evolve.
All the satellite images and astronaut photos we see of hurricanes provide important perspective on storms. But the 360-degree walkthrough is a whole new level. Turning your gaze skyward shows just how immense hurricanes are, with the tallest columns of rain and ice rising more than 9 miles above the surface.
The data that NASA satellites send back is crucial for improving weather forecasts. While Maria was largely a wind-driven nightmare on the ground, satellites like GPM really help with juicy storms like Harvey and Florence. With climate change making heavy downpours more common, understanding the structure of these types of storms is only becoming more important.
And the impacts we’ve seen are a good reminder of what’s at stake. Maria ravaged the electrical grid and caused nearly 3,000 excess deaths in what was the most costly hurricane season in U.S. history.