Needed: Better Eyes in the Sky on Earth

By Jonathan Marshall

Last weekend’s big storm here in Northern and Central California could have produced many more injuries, blackouts, floods and other damage had residents and emergency providers, including PG&E, not had plenty of warning from the National Weather Service.

But some of the most powerful tools that today’s meteorologists depend on — Earth-orbiting satellites — are at risk, owing to planning delays, dramatically rising costs, and competition for resources from other programs.

Hurricane Sandy from Space

As captured in a satellite image by NASA, Hurricane Sandy revealed itself as a powerful storm over most of the East Coast.

In a report issued last May, the American Meteorological Society warned that the number of Earth-observing missions planned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) might plummet from a recent peak of about 25 to only six by 2020. That could partially blind the country as we accelerate headlong into a new climate era characterized by ever crazier and costlier weather extremes.

Imagine if forecasters couldn’t draw on detailed satellite images showing the progress and changing intensity of the next Sandy-sized superstorm. But there’s a lot more at stake than weather prediction.

“Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS) inform and guide the activities of virtually all economic sectors and innumerable institutions underlying modern civilization,” the report declared. “[They] comprise a national asset that, if lost or degraded, will not meet future societal needs that span the whole of the national agenda.”

Importance of satellites in polar orbit

One particularly important program, the Joint Polar Satellite System, has been plagued by cost overruns and delays that will likely result in reduced capabilities and coverage gaps if older satellites quit working on schedule. Without a functioning satellite in polar orbit, the National Weather Service has said, it would have underestimated the “Snowmageddon” blizzard that blanketed the Midwest and East Coast in February 2010 by 50 percent.

So it’s cheering that latest and greatest product of the joint NASA/NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program just passed its Mission Critical Design Review, readying it for construction and launch by late 2015.

Like its predecessors, the GOES-R will hover 22,300 miles above the Earth, looking down on North America with keen eyes that even a hawk can’t match. But this latest model represents “a giant leap forward in the technology,” according to NASA.

Its Earth imager “will be a huge advance over the current system, providing three times more differentiated spectral information, four times better spatial resolution, and more than five times faster coverage of the same area.” (To see some of its imaging capabilities, check out this University of Wisconsin blog.)

The satellite also will introduce a host of new imaging services for forecasting severe weather (including hurricanes and tornadoes), as well as monitoring fires and smoke, aerosol pollution (which has a major impact on human health), volcanic ash (which can cripple aircraft), and dangerous solar flares, among other capabilities.

More precise data would benefit PG&E customers

Mike Voss, PG&E’s senior meteorologist, says he’s excited by the prospect of getting more precise data from GOES-R over his satellite downlink from NOAA in San Ramon.

“Remote sensing of what’s going on at different depths in the atmosphere is tremendously important to us on the West Coast because we otherwise have very sparse weather data (from out over the Pacific),” he said. “Our forecasts rely on getting a good idea of what the atmosphere is doing right now, and then running a simulation. If you don’t know what’s going on now, you can’t predict the future.”

Voss and his colleagues at PG&E use detailed forecasts of wind, rain, snow, and other factors to predict the probable timing, location, and number of electrical outages during storms, so the utility’s responders can get the right resources to the right places at the right time to make repairs quickly and restore service to customers.

By the same token, Voss said, knowing when a storm will come in weaker than expected is valuable too, helping the utility adjust plans so it saves money while continuing to serve customers well.

PG&E customers also benefit from improved management of the utility’s clean hydroelectric facilities made possible by better forecasts. “We provide information on temperature, precipitation, and other variables to our hydro management group for their flow forecast model,” Voss said, “so operators can manage the water system for safety and economy. They are depending on us to come through with accurate forecasts.”

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