Commentary | Hyperspectral Sounding and Severe Weather

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The recent severe tornadoes in southern Oklahoma are a tragic reminder that the United States still has room to improve in its ability to make more timely and accurate warnings of severe weather conditions. The good news is that technology exists to significantly improve severe weather forecasts and increase warning times. The bad news, however, is that it has yet to be adequately placed into service. 

More than a year ago Kathy Sullivan, acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the U.S. Congress that atmospheric sounding represents “the essential lifeblood of weather forecasting.” Sullivan was correct, and the communities of meteorological scientists and atmospheric experts emphatically agree. At the same time the current ability of this country to make timely and precise soundings from space is in precipitous decline. This directly impacts our ability to make timely and accurate warnings of severe weather and forecast the landfall and severity of hurricanes and superstorms such as Sandy.

Recent investments in the computational infrastructure at the National Weather Service are crucial to improve the quality of Numerical Weather Prediction and our short-, medium- and long-range forecasts, but just as important are the atmospheric data that feed these computational models. Without better data, the desired improvements in forecast ability will not be realized. These models need better information regarding the entire three-dimensional state of the atmosphere and they need these data at higher horizontal, vertical and temporal resolutions.

Geostationary hyperspectral sounding technology, developed over the past several decades by NASA and other agencies at a cost to the U.S. taxpayer in excess of $400 million, can provide the essential atmospheric data needed to realize the benefits of our next-generation weather forecast models. No other existing or emerging weather technology offers this promise. 

We do have hyperspectral sounders in orbit today, but they fall far short of addressing our needs. When the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R) and National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System/Joint Polar Satellite System were originally authorized, the sounding capability envisioned was significant, including three systems in low Earth orbit with advanced hyperspectral sounders and two geostationary systems with hyperspectral sounders. These systems were to be complimentary, providing continuous high-vertical, high-horizontal and high-temporal coverage of the continental United States.

These systems would have had the capability to make approximately 100 million measurements a day over the United States, all of them of the highest quality needed to improve weather forecast capability.

However, the reality today is much different. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on both of these systems, only a single dedicated hyperspectral sounder on a low Earth orbit satellite will be deployed, providing fewer than 1 million soundings a day over the United States, or one-hundredth of the promised result at many times the cost. 

Geostationary orbit capability is absolutely essential because it is the only vantage point from which we can continuously observe evolving weather with the needed high-temporal resolution — as fast as every few seconds or minutes. It also provides necessary superior high-spatial resolution and high-vertical resolution observations to substantially improve our current forecast capability.

GeoMetWatch and our partners are in a position to implement this life-saving technology for the benefit of the U.S. today. In 2010, GeoMetWatch was granted a license from the Department of Commerce to operate a constellation of hyperspectral sounders in geosynchronous orbit, and we are committed to implementing this technology as soon as possible over the U.S. We are prepared to take the financial and implementation risk to deploy this technology into space using a commercial business approach that would be cost effective and completely in line with today’s space policy.

The hyperspectral sounding data that will be generated will be verified and validated by NASA. This technology will more than mitigate the risk of both an operational gap in our nation’s weather satellites and the decline in our ability to make advanced atmospheric soundings. And it will achieve the full operational capability for improved severe weather forecasting that members of Congress envisioned when they originally authorized the GOES-R program.

This can be done — not for billions of dollars in up-front costs over decades, but for no committed up-front monies within a few short years. The only thing we have to lose if we do nothing is more lives, untold property and a chance to avoid further diminution in our national weather prediction capability.