Commentary | Sounding the Alarm

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The June 17 opinion article “Hyperspectral Sounding and Severe Weather” by David J. Crain [Commentary, page 19] prompted us to respond jointly to some of the issues raised, specifically that current sounding capabilities are having a negative impact on the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) ability to issue accurate forecasts. NOAA is committed to being prepared for the future in terms of having adequate observations that allow us to deliver accurate forecasts that save lives and livelihoods.

Six days before the recent tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, data from sounder instruments onboard polar-orbiting satellites helped NOAA forecasters accurately predict the atmospheric conditions leading to these horrific storms. As the situation grew more ominous on May 20, meteorologists issued warnings 16 minutes before the EF-5 tornado touched down devastating Moore, Okla. — four minutes earlier than NOAA’s national average lead time for tornado warnings.

Along with information from satellites, NOAA forecasters used dual-polarization radar data and surface observations from weather stations to closely follow the developing storm system and issue the tornado warning. The value in the sounder data was realized in the accurate numerical weather prediction models during the outlook phase, allowing NOAA’s forecasters to confidently identify a tornado threat days prior to the event. Confident outlooks meant emergency managers, the news media and the public were aware of the threat and when the warning was issued were prepared to seek immediate shelter to protect their lives. Emergency responders were prepositioned and ready to take recovery steps.

In fact, NOAA’s ability to issue timely and accurate forecasts by assimilating sounder data from the current fleet of operational and research spacecraft has never been better for all kinds of high-impact weather. For example, the five-day forecast of Hurricane Sandy’s New Jersey landfall was exceptionally accurate, enabling effective emergency preparations through the use of these data in our numerical weather prediction modeling systems. The accurate soundings and models translate into NOAA’s ability to confidently deliver better forecasts with longer lead times, providing local, state and federal partners, and the American public, days to prepare for a major, potentially dangerous storm.

Because satellite observations are one of the pillars of our accurate weather forecasts, NOAA relies on a resilient constellation of national and international spacecraft to supply these data. For example, NOAA uses hyperspectral data from Eumetsat’s Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer. NOAA also exploits data from the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit, which flies onboard NOAA, NASA and Eumetsat polar-orbiting satellites. NASA’s Aqua satellite provides data from its Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, and the NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite provides critical data from the new Cross-track Infrared Sounder and Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder.

For the future, NOAA and NASA are aggressively planning the launch of the next generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

The GOES-R spacecraft will feature the powerful 16-channel Advanced Baseline Imager, which will provide three times more spectral information, twice the spatial resolution and more frequent imagery than is available from our current GOES imagers in order to follow rapidly developing weather events. It will also have the Geostationary Lightning Mapper to pinpoint the conditions for severe storms even sooner. JPSS is intended to incorporate the technologies proven on the Suomi NPP mission. Thus it will feature the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder, which operates in tandem with the Cross-track Infrared Sounder on JPSS to provide profiles of atmospheric temperature and moisture. The Cross-track Infrared Sounder is the first in a series of advanced operational sounders that provides more accurate, detailed atmospheric temperature and moisture observations for weather and climate applications. Finally, the Visible and Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument provides critical observations at high latitudes.

At NOAA, there is no greater priority than protecting lives and property through accurate, timely weather forecasts and decision support services. We remain committed to this core mission and are open to working with all of our partners in the private sector, academia and other government agencies to provide the United States the best and most reliable weather prediction possible. But timely and accurate forecasts and warnings alone have little lifesaving value unless citizens are prepared to respond to them effectively. That’s why it is imperative for the United States to be a “Weather Ready Nation.” Across America, NOAA’s Weather Ready Nation campaign is building community resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and water events.

NOAA’s National Weather Service is transforming its operations to empower emergency managers, first responders, government officials, businesses and the public to make fast, smart decisions that save lives and livelihoods.

 

Louis Uccellini is the assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Weather Service. Mary Kizca is the assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service.