Trust the weather forecast and heed the warnings

Trust the weather forecast and heed the warnings

The satellite images of ominous hurricanes and tropical storms churning in the oceans are captivating — and powerful.

It is precisely those weather satellite images that are responsible for the safety of many in the path of the world’s most devastating storms.

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Equipped with the best technology fueled by federal government investment, it is America’s weather enterprise of public servants, academics, and industry innovators — meteorologists, communicators, engineers, and scientists — that have urged communities and their citizens to take action ahead of Hurricane Florence. And they have.

Ahead of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, meteorologist Isaac Cline rode his horse-drawn cart along the Texas coast to warn residents to evacuate after noticing increasing sea swells. Unfortunately, thousands still perished.

Last year, Hurricane Harvey brought some of the heaviest rains in history to Houston, Texas. With advanced notice of the approaching storm from weather satellite imagery, fatalities were in the dozens. The death tolls from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005 remind us that the journey to achieving the best storm preparedness and disaster response is a long one.

Progress is being made. Within the past two years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched new satellites that make high-resolution storm images from the Pacific Ocean through the Americas to the Atlantic Ocean possible — some with a pixel every quarter mile.

Through 2036, the satellites in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R) program will complement the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) to provide a continuous and detailed look at storms as they evolve. At combined mission costs of nearly $30 billion to taxpayers, the instruments on these satellites provide a compelling depiction of nature’s fury.

Both GOES-R and JPSS sense infrared energy that the ocean surface and storms emit. Using those additional wavelengths, it is possible to monitor clouds and ocean temperatures throughout the day and night. Warm ocean temperatures and cold clouds are the telltale signs that a storm is brewing. Experts interpret the data in deciding when to issue public warnings and evacuation orders.

At National Weather Service forecast offices across the country, including the National Hurricane Center, meteorologists are continually reviewing the latest images — and there are many — to monitor the changing weather and the ocean. The GOES-R satellites can capture a hurricane image and transmit it to earth every 30 seconds. Using analysis techniques and algorithms that scientists in the government and America’s universities developed, field forecasters can actively assess the strength of the storm, its surrounding winds, and motion.

The weather satellite data is also sent to supercomputers in the United States and Europe that ingest it to produce and refine digital weather forecasts for several days ahead in a matter of hours. These supercomputers model the upper atmosphere as well as what is happening near the ground.

With this technology and continuing advances in the field of meteorology, the weather is no longer unpredictable. A five-day forecast is now as accurate as a three-day forecast was two decades ago. Weather satellites are overwhelmingly responsible for the quality of these supercomputer predictions that are essential for weather forecasting.

After the storm passes, weather satellite images are useful for assessing the impact of a storm. Algorithms built for GOES-R and JPSS imagery are able to determine the extent of flooding from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. And JPSS has a special sensor to detect city lights, making power outages and the progress of recovery easy to see.

While the government is responsible for the investment in the weather satellites, many played an important role. There were strong partnerships with American companies and universities employing thousands of experts to design, build, and launch the GOES-R and JPSS satellites and develop the models for the supercomputers. These satellite images and computer forecasts reach Americans through the television and smartphone apps from commercial weather forecast providers.

Congress must continue NOAA’s weather satellites and forecast capability. Without these necessary assets, and a strong American weather enterprise, our nation and the world would be blind to some of the most substantial natural threats.

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