NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- While everyone at the Jersey Shore was putting gasoline in their cars and tying down patio furniture the weekend before superstorm Sandy, Rutgers University graduate students Greg Seroka and Travis Miles tracked their robot swimming around in the storm's path.
In the days that followed, they got a rare glimpse into erupting undersea conditions as the storm swept ashore. Data the probe collected -- including currents and sharp drops in sea surface temperature -- might help scientists reconstruct Sandy's behavior and better predict how hurricanes change in the critical hours before landfall. The storm killed 131 people in the U.S. and is blamed for about $63 billion in damage.
"The big impact of (the data) will be in forecasts. ... Weather models don't resolve that temperature drop," Seroka said last week at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences laboratory, which operates and maintains a fleet of Slocum electric gliders, including the one the two grad students set loose Oct. 25.
The undersea gliders are long-range, battery-powered probes that move through the sea in an up-and-down pattern, like a slow roller coaster. Using ballast water to change depth, descents lend the machines forward speed, and their wings fly underwater just like a glider in the atmosphere. Sensors constantly gather information on water quality, temperature and other parameters, and periodically the gliders surface to transmit data to the lab.
The most famous glider in the fleet is RU-27, which made a historic transatlantic crossing to Spain in 2009. But the machines are at work constantly in the world's oceans because they can operate at a cost of around $300 a day compared with $50,000 a day for an oceanographic ship and crew. "We've had a few gliders in storms, by opportunity, not design," said Miles, 27, a native of Wilmington, N.C., who has seen his share of hurricanes at home. Gliders survived bouts with Hurricanes Ida and Irene in recent years, "so I wrote a short study proposal to do a mission like that," he said.
Miles and Seroka thought their opportunity would come this fall or winter with a nor'easter. But a week before Sandy, Seroka and another Rutgers forecaster realized how big the storm could get. "We decided right away we wanted to put a glider out to get this critical data," said Seroka, 26, a native of Burke, Va.
The probe's data are a picture of the ocean in utter tumult.
In days before the storm, water of different temperatures lay in sharply defined layers, from 50 degrees on the bottom to 64 degrees at the surface, Seroka and Miles said. As the storm approached, surface water began rushing toward shore and cold deep waters headed in the opposite direction.
Miles and Seroka have a lot of analysis ahead of them before they can publish results. They hope the findings can be useful for forecasters and for post-storm analysis of Sandy and its monster storm surge.