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As Hurricane Ian threatens Florida, the National Weather Service shines

After a relatively slow start to hurricane season, the Atlantic Ocean has now produced a sequence of vigorous storms. Following Hurricane Fiona’s destructive path through Puerto Rico, leaving the entire island without power, Hurricane Ian is now threatening Florida. While these storms are endlessly disconcerting to many Americans, especially coastal residents, recent changes and technology upgrades at the National Weather Service (NWS) have positioned it to serve Americans effectively this hurricane season and beyond.

On Friday, when now Ian was a tropical depression, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasted a landfall on Wednesday evening between Tampa and Fort Myers, Florida, as a major hurricane. On Tuesday morning, the forecast was nearly identical. Floridians are prepared.

A well-funded and efficiently organized NWS is essential for public safety, allowing Americans to plan their days around the weather, and enabling commerce without undue interruption to transportation and construction projects. Maintaining the quality of weather services requires multi-year planning and annual on-time appropriations that allow the NWS to accomplish its namesake objective: service to the American people.

The NWS, with over 120 field offices across the country, still provides warnings and forecasts through their web site, weather.gov. Now, however, the NWS is building relationships with state and local governments and emergency managers to achieve seamless two-way communication before, during, and after significant weather events and establish trust with the communities the NWS serves.

Beyond perfecting the temperature, precipitation and wind forecast, the NWS is now specifically informing Americans about the hazards associated with threatening storms like Hurricane Ian. NWS meteorologists are now routinely working with local stakeholders to predict, for example, the low-lying and coastal areas likely to encounter flooding and storm surge instead of focusing only on rainfall totals and maximum wind speeds.

This information is helping people understand the risks where they live, not just their community but their neighborhood, assisting citizens in making the best decision for their individual circumstances. These “impact-based decision support services” were added to the NWS mission statement in October 2021. The term sounds complex but it’s good government in action.

Accurate, localized weather forecasts require reliable and precise weather observations. The U.S. is fortunate to have weather radars and many weather stations — from official instrumentation at airports to the many hobbyists and volunteer observers that supply weather reports to the NWS.

However, multi-day weather forecasts of hurricanes and other major weather systems are only possible with weather satellites that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates. Satellites are the most valuable yet most expensive observation platform the NWS has in its forecasting arsenal, costing Americans around $2 billion per year — or about $16 per household.

This past March, NOAA and NASA launched the third satellite in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R). Geostationary satellites orbit Earth as it rotates so meteorologists can easily monitor the movement and development of clouds and water vapor associated with weather systems. Most of the imagery of Hurricane Ian on the Internet and news broadcasts are from the GOES-R series.

The GOES-R series satellites have a sophisticated multi-wavelength imager that can capture the same storm, such as Ian, every 30 seconds using visible and infrared sensing. The satellites are also equipped with a new lightning mapper that can detect lightning flashes and their extent. The lightning mapper is helping meteorologists understand how lightning rates are correlated with storm severity.

In November, the second satellite in the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) will launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The JPSS satellites are in a polar orbit: they orbit around Earth from pole to pole as Earth rotates underneath it, capturing the entire Earth every 12 hours in three dimensions, even through clouds, using sensors known as sounders that “listen” to the molecules in atmosphere.

Imagery from GOES-R and JPSS are regularly sent to NWS forecast offices and centers, including the NHC where meteorologists can analyze it to determine the storm dynamics that are important for refining intensity and track forecasts. The 3D imagery from JPSS is also sent to supercomputers that run complex mathematical models to forecast the weather globally and, therefore, locally.

This past January, the NWS began using two new supercomputers, each operating at a speed of 12.1 petaflops. These supercomputers will enable the U.S. to run its latest version global weather forecast model known as the Global Forecast System. By the next hurricane season in 2023, the supercomputers will run a new model specifically targeting hurricanes known as the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System.

Fortunately, weather forecasts have never been more accurate, and with these upgrades, more improvements are likely. Last year, Atlantic basin hurricane track errors for four-day forecasts averaged only 115 miles. This is about the same as a two-day forecast less than 20 years ago, in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina produced exceptional destruction in New Orleans. Now, ahead of Ian, two-day storm track forecasts are accurate within 50 miles, reducing the need for some to evacuate.

Despite this, Americans are bearing a heavy cost from seemingly continuous weather disasters. In 2020 and 2021, Americans experienced 40 weather disasters that cost more than $1 billion each, 11 of which were hurricanes and tropical storms. No other two-year period has had so many such disasters in recent history, even when adjusting for inflation.

The best defense against natural disasters is accurate, reliable and tailored weather predictions and observations that enable Americans to take actions to save the lives and protect the property of their families, neighbors, and themselves. The NWS is achieving this mission for Americans, and its shining success — based on the cumulative efforts of its many meteorologists to convey weather forecasts and impacts with trust and hope — is something that we should recognize amidst the dark days following the next disaster.

Jordan Gerth is a meteorologist and honorary fellow at the Space Science and Engineering Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Tags Climate change extreme weather hurricane Hurricane Ian National Hurricane Center National Weather Service Natural disaster

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