Commentary | Don’t Let Bright Forecasts Grow Dim

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As a teenager, I babysat for two young boys in my Virginia Beach, Va., neighborhood. The younger of the two, Jack, was obsessed with the Hollywood movie “Twister.” Night after night he begged me to fast forward the DVD to the film scenes where tornadoes were wreaking havoc.

Perhaps I have Jack to thank, but somewhere along the line I also became fascinated by the weather and was soon known among my friends as the girl always snapping photos of clouds and talking about storm warnings or watches — even if they were halfway across the country.

Now, as a student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, I am majoring in meteorology, and it has become not just the path to a career, it has become my passion.

One year ago I learned of a meteorology internship opportunity with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. I eagerly applied, and was accepted for Ball’s 2013 summer intern program.

I was assigned to work on the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1), a follow-on to the polar-orbiting weather satellite now on orbit, Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP). When the JPSS-1 program manager gave me the first tour of the manufacturing center, I was astounded. I witnessed how much painstaking effort and accuracy went into satellite design and assembly. From day one of my internship, my education was broadened when I learned how satellite instruments gather critical weather data.

Weather satellites fly in two different types of orbits: polar and geostationary. Geostationary satellites stay at a fixed point high above Earth and thus constantly monitor the same region. Polar-orbiting satellites are more like a flashlight. This flashlight continuously circles the Earth, passing close to both poles and “shining” on different strips of the entire Earth. Together, these weather satellites give us a complete view of weather patterns around the globe at all times.

A polar satellite’s global view captures images and data of our atmosphere, land and oceans. We can monitor an amazing range of environment conditions, including wildfires, volcanic eruptions, blizzards, droughts, dust storms and hurricanes.

Polar-orbiting satellites enable meteorologists to track tropical weather systems as they travel from the first signs of disturbance in the tropics to their direct position of landfall and intensity. Without such technological advances in monitoring tropical system development, our information about the path and intensity of nature’s forces would be limited. Hurricane Sandy, which affected people in 24 states last year, is a prime example of the need for precise weather data. Meteorologists successfully forecast this hurricane thanks to two Suomi NPP instruments: the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder. Citizens were better prepared for the storm because of those forecasts.

Despite advances in weather forecasting, one troubling fact remains — the possibility of a gap in weather data collection. The current polar-orbiting satellite, Suomi NPP, was launched in 2011 and was designed for a five-year mission life. Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acknowledge the substantial risk of a gap in polar satellite data between the expected end-of-life for Suomi NPP around 2016 and when its successor, JPSS-1 is launched and operational in 2017. Depending on how long Suomi NPP operates and whether JPSS-1 experiences launch or operation delays, the gap could span from 17 to 53 months or more. A satellite data gap would result in less-accurate and less-timely weather forecasts and warnings for extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges and floods.

I have yet to begin my career in meteorology, but I’m already concerned about the vulnerability a gap in weather data would create. Tornadoes, winter storms and heat waves are just a few of the dangers that would sneak up on us and find us unprepared. Without accurate weather satellite data, we would be left in the dark without a flashlight to show us the way.

 

Amanda Leitz is a senior at Virginia Tech. She is studying for a bachelor of science degree in meteorology with minors in geography and communications. This piece first appeared in the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch.