55th Anniversary of Hurricane Esther

The eye of Hurricane Eshter seen from USWB DC-6 Sept. 16, 1961 (NOAA)
The eye of Hurricane Esther seen from USWB DC-6
Sept. 16, 1961

On September 16, 1961, Hurricane Esther was seeded by Navy planes in the inaugural experiment of what was to formally become Project STORMFURY next year.  The Project would last for twenty years but only succeed in carrying out experiments on four storms.

Esther was the first hurricane to be initially detected by satellite.  On Sept. 10th, TIROS III imaged an area of disturbed weather a hundred miles southwest of the Cabo Verde Islands.  The next day both the satellite and ships in the area confirmed a circulation, and by the 12th, a reconnaissance aircraft found hurricane-force winds in the system, which was then given the name Esther.

Hurricane Esther on Sept. 11, 1961 from TIORS III (NASA/USWB)
Hurricane Esther on Sept. 11, 1961 from TIORS III

Esther continued to move toward the west-northwest.  Tracked by satellite and monitored by aircraft, it grew into a major hurricane.  By Sept. 16th, it had moved within range of Puerto Rico, where Navy and U.S. Weather Bureau planes carried out their first joint seeding experiment.  Fourteen years previous, the Navy and GE Laboratories had carried out a hurricane seeding experiment as part of Project Cirrus, and the Air Force planes of the National Hurricane Research Project had tested seeding devices in a hurricane environment in 1958.  But the Esther experiments were the first ones carried out in an ambitious new project dubbed STORMFURY.  The following year, an agreement between the Navy and Weather Bureau was reached to formally codify the venture.

Very soon after the seeding, one of the Weather Bureau planes monitoring Esther detected a weakening of the eyewall on its 10 cm radar, but the 3-cm radar and visual checks saw no change in the eyewall’s appearance.  Another seeding experiment was carried out the following day.  Unfortunately, the Navy A3-D jets released most of their silver iodide canisters into the eye and not the eyewall on this day, so these flights became a null-case experiment.

But the scientist were encouraged by the results of the first day, and the formal Project plan was drawn up and agreed to the next year.  Project STORMFURY would continue until 1982, but lacked sufficient target storms to carry out a significant number of experiments.  In addition, new findings about the dynamics and cloud physics of hurricanes called into question the premise of the experiments.

Track of Hurricane Esther 1961 (Unisys)
Track of Hurricane Esther 1961 (Unisys)

As for Hurricane Esther, it continued toward the northwest with its maximum sustained winds peaking at 145 mph (230 km/hr) on Sept. 19th.  The following day, it recurved 120 miles (193 km) east of the Outer Banks.  The storm seemed headed toward a Rhode Island landfall, but veered away to the east just 35 miles (56 km) southeast of Block Island.  Over the next four days, Esther made a slow, clockwise loop off the MidAtlantic states, steadily diminishing in strength.  On Sept. 26th, the center of the tropical storm passed over Cape Cod and made landfall in Maine with winds of 50 mph (84 km/hr).  Esther caused an estimated US$6 million in damages.