Not only will weather events become more extreme as time goes on, but it looks as if our ability to predict the weather will degrade. Not a happy combination.
Berrien Moore, director of the National Weather Service, and many other experts who spoke with me cite Sandy as a prime example of how vital satellite data has become in weather forecasting and how terrible it would be if we lost any part of it. Typically, hurricanes that make their way up the East Coast end up veering back out to sea. But Sandy didn’t, and thanks to a European weather model that deeply incorporated satellite data, forecasters were able to predict its sudden turn west into the coast.
Though damage from the storm was still extensive, without satellite data the aftermath could have been far worse. In the months following Sandy, meteorologists reran the European model, but withheld information from weather satellites. It failed to predict Sandy’s left turn. “Satellites allow us a complete picture of the atmosphere,” says J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society, something weather balloons and Doppler radar cannot provide. “The satellite data is critical,” he adds.
“Sandy was just a warning,” Moore says. Without satellites, “that could have been a fundamental disaster.”
To appreciate how indispensable weather satellites are to forecasts today, we have to go back to the 1950s. Then, the science of weather prediction was just a couple of decades old, and incremental improvements had led to 24-hour forecasts. But the pace quickened when, in early 1959, the United States Navy launched Vanguard 2, the world’s first weather satellite. Though it didn’t return useable photographs, it paved the way for TIROS 1 a little over a year later. The squat cylinder beamed back images of cloud cover for a brief 78 days. Meteorologists couldn’t have been happier. Since then, our forecasts have only gotten longer and more reliable, so much so that many of us take them for granted.
“Much of that advancement is due to the assimilation of satellite data,” Shepherd says. “Take that away, are we going to go backwards in terms of our skill in weather forecasting? I think that’s a real possibility.”
(a tip of the hat to Carl)