Industry May Have Answer to Weather Forecasting Blind Spot

By Tadjdeh, Yasmin | National Defense, August 2013 | Go to article overview

Industry May Have Answer to Weather Forecasting Blind Spot


Tadjdeh, Yasmin, National Defense


* The United States faces a gap in future weather forecasts. From less accurate to untimely predictions, there could be dire consequences for the U.S. population and economy, warned a recent Government Accountability Office report.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System is nearing the end of its lifespan. When decommissioned, NOAA will lose some of the essential weather data provided by the system for between 17 to 53 months, the GAO found. The blind spot could materialize as early as 2014.

"A satellite data gap would result in less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events, such as hurricanes, storm surges and floods. Such degradation in forecasts and warnings would place lives, property and our nation's critical infrastructures in danger," said the GAO in its 2013 High Risk Report.

Polar-orbiting satellites are often used to provide data about severe weather. They typically can forecast storms three to five days out. The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) will replace NOAA's current constellation, but there could be a multi-year degradation of data between the time the current polar-orbiting satellite is decommissioned and when the JPSS is fully functional, the report said.

Polar-orbiting satellites have provided essential data in recent natural disasters, a study by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts found. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, data from polar-orbiting satellites predicted the storm would make landfall in New Jersey five days before it hit. Without that data, forecasts could have shown Sandy swirling harmlessly away into the Atlantic Ocean, the study found.

In February 2010, a major nor'easter--dubbed "Snowmageddon"--sacked the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States with up to three feet of snow. The storm knocked out power and stranded thousands of travelers. Major cities along its path, such as Washington, D.C., were at a standstill. Had polar-orbiting satellite data not been available, weather forecasters would have under predicted the snowfall by more than 10 inches, said Mariel Borowitz, a research analyst at the Space Foundation, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based advocacy group.

"People would not have realized the extent of how that snowstorm would be and would be much less prepared," said Borowitz. "That data makes a huge difference."

Weather information providers aren't completely in the blind without polar-orbiting satellite data, but "forecasts will not be as good as they otherwise could be," she said.

While NOAA is scrambling to find a solution, industry wants to step in to fill this gap.

Given that there has been an uptick in extreme weather over the past few years, a lack of polar-orbiting satellite data--which can help spot severe weather--could be very dangerous, said Anne Miglarese, president and CEO of PlanetIQ, a Bethesda, Md.-based satellite company.

Executives at the company hope that NOAA will be the first customer for its constellation of 12 low-Earth orbit satellites which could provide some of the government's weather data.

The company uses a method called GPS radio occultation that collects data on temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity. The system would be able to take readings in a matter of minutes on a global scale, said Miglarese.

The system could collect approximately 12,000 soundings per day, which would equal 5.5 million individual readings of temperature, pressure and water vapor on the ground, said Miglarese.

PlanetIQ's constellation of satellites wouldn't fully fill the gap, but teaming up with GeoMetWatch, a North Logan, Utah-based satellite company, could nearly replace the lost polar-orbiting satellite weather data, Miglarese said.

"I think if you put those two programs together, you would have a significant [increase in data]," said Miglarese, who described the companies as "kindred souls" that are not yet formally working together. …

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