OUR ability to forecast the weather is in big trouble.
Last month, the National Research Council concluded that the nation’s system of Earth-observing satellites is in a state of “precipitous decline” and warned of a “slowing or even reversal of the steady gains in weather forecast accuracy over many years.”
This worrisome development puts all of us in harm’s way and should particularly trouble us as the annual six-month hurricane season begins today.
Gathering timely and accurate weather data is, of course, vital to saving lives. The deadliest hurricane ever to strike the United States hit Galveston, Tex., on Sept. 8, 1900, killing as many as 8,000 people. Scientists had lacked the tools to predict the storm’s severity.
We have made tremendous progress in the accuracy of our hurricane forecasting (and overall weather forecasting) since then, much of it a result of government-owned satellites that were first launched in the 1960s and now provide about 90 percent of the data used by the National Weather Service in its forecasting models. Satellite and radar data and the powerful computers that crunch this information are the foundation of the weather information and images we get. Thanks to these instruments, for instance, the five-day hurricane track forecast we get today is more accurate than the three-day forecast from just 10 years ago.
These satellites also monitor volcanic eruptions, rising sea levels, melting ice sheets, the depletion of stratospheric ozone and ocean surface temperatures. Emergency beacons from aviators and mariners in distress can also be pinpointed by these satellites. Scientists who study the atmosphere and the ocean need continuous weather data to track large-scale climate variations (like El Niño) and long-term environmental trends like global warming.
Weather observations even bear on national security. Accurate wind and temperature forecasts are critical in deciding whether to launch an aircraft that will require midflight refueling.
But those capabilities, and our overall ability to monitor the planet, are slipping.
via New York Times – HEIDI CULLEN
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