22 October 2011

After April 27th, Would Congress Cut Weather Radar??

Posted by Dan Satterfield

I’m just back from attending the GOES Users Conference (GUC) in Birmingham, AL. The GOES images are the cloud pictures you see on almost every TV weathercast in America, and for that matter, the Western Hemisphere. These satellites are positioned above the Equator at a very high altitude-about a tenth of the way to the Moon! As you likely already know, they are so high because at that height they go around the earth once every day, and (just like the satellites that provide you with 300 TV channels) they are always over the same spot.

After the massive tornado outbreaks this year, any lawmaker who proposed cutting the weather radars would be buried in an avalanche of angry mail from those who lost loved ones and their homes. However, this is apparently not the case for weather satellites. While the NOAA Doppler weather radars nationwide are being upgraded to dual polarization technology, the nation’s weather satellite system has been facing serious budget cuts. The result is some very critical and promising science has been canceled or at the least delayed.

Moisture levels (total precipitable water) in the atmosphere can be detected from space, and the next generation GOES R will improve the ability greatly. It will launch in 2015. Image from CIMMS-Univ. of Wisc.

I think a large part of the blame for this falls at the feet of those of us who present on-air and on-the-web weather.

To be blunt, we’ve done a great job of presenting, and explaining the latest radar technology to the public, but when it comes to satellite imagery, we are stuck in the early 1980’s! This was the subject of my presentation at the GUC and it was tailored to those in research, government and the broadcasters. The public knows what a hook echo on radar is, but they’ve never heard of a “baroclinic leaf cloud”!

When everyone who has a weather radar app on their smart phone also has an app that shows GOES data, then the satellite funding will be as far from the chopping block as the Doppler radars are! All of us in weather must do a better job of communicating to the public just how vital this data is for forecasting and warnings. Without satellite imagery, weather forecast accuaracy would be seriously degraded, and severe weather warning lead times would increase. This is especially true in areas with poor radar coverage, and do I even need to mention hurricanes??

The slides for my presentation are here and many other presentations at the GUC are here. If you’re a weather geek, you will find a ton of info there.  For those who want to learn more about what you can see with weather satellites, the COMET program has a bunch of training modules on satellite imagery, and the public is welcome to them. You can see realtime images online in many different channels from the present weather satellites and the images are free.

Watch a few of those modules and you will never look at a weather satellite image on TV the same way again! Wait until you see what the future is going to bring in just a few years. More on that in my next post.