Red Sky in the Morning

by

We are now headed into winter and already 2011 has been a historic year for weather — or weather disasters, to be precise. By the time fall arrived, the U.S. already had suffered 10 storms that caused more than $1 billion each in damage. We have seen deadly wildfires in Texas and Florida caused by record-breaking drought; devastating damage to New England, mid-Atlantic and Southern states from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee; catastrophic spring tornados in western Massachusetts, in America’s Heartland, and in the South; and record-breaking floods along the Mississippi basin and Minnesota’s Red River. More recently, a rare and deadly October snowstorm ravaged the Northeast.

Early on May 24, I was smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley and unaware that I was about to enter my first close-encounter tornado season as the director of the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma. But then, the morning opened with news that an ensemble of high-resolution weather models, being run by both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the university, were predicting severe tornados that evening between 5:30 and 6:30 along the heavily traveled Interstate 35 corridor in the greater Oklahoma City area. The expert opinions from both the federal and university sides of the house were that the models were spot-on. The area of greatest concern was the north-south band from 30 miles south of Norman to 30 miles north of Oklahoma City, and the time was rush hour. I looked outside. There was not a cloud in the sky.

Nine hours later, just as the NOAA Storm Prediction Center and its supporting colleagues had foreseen, seven tornadoes struck Oklahoma in the I-35 corridor; 10 people lost their lives. It could have been far worse. The early predictions gave weather forecasters ample time to relay multiple warnings to residents, and most were able to stay out of harm’s way.

This wasn’t always the case. In only 75 years, we have gone from almost no warnings to a system that can foresee the likelihood of tornado activity in time and space with extraordinary clarity. The value of this system is so great that we hardly notice it — until we find that we need it. At noon on May 24, when I again looked out my window, which I was now doing every few minutes, there was not a cloud in the sky.

This remarkable forecast-warning system relies on a chain from data to prediction that begins with satellite observations coupled with radar technology and an array of other ground-based observations that are linked to computer-based models. These data and model results are analyzed and interpreted by experts who relay their findings to trained weather communicators, whose reports quickly find their way to your smartphone, computer, television or radio.

By midafternoon on May 24, the governor of Oklahoma essentially shut down the threatened area — nearly 3 hours before the outbreaks. When I looked out my window, I noticed there were a few distant clouds on the southwestern horizon.

Due to the exceptional chain of capabilities and communications technology that has been developed, personal safety and property, national security and the nation’s economy benefit from advance warnings about these catastrophic events. But what happens when just one of the links in that chain is broken?

NOAA also wondered about that possibility. NOAA’s satellites provide an extraordinary array of measurements enabling accurate forecasts. So the agency decided to re-examine data provided by its polar orbiting satellites when in 2010 the East Coast was hit with “Snowmageddon” — the biggest snowstorm in nearly 90 years. NOAA discovered that if it blinded one eye — for example, if it had failed to provide forecasters with data from just one of the polar orbiting satellites passing over the greater Washington area ahead of the storm — then the forecasted storm track would have been off by tens of miles and snowfall would have been underestimated by 50 percent. That means workers who were sent home early on storm day because of massive snowfall predictions might instead have stayed at work — and later been stranded in their cars on the highway. There would have been far greater disruption to the airlines and ground commerce.

The next link in this remarkable “data to prediction” chain was launched on Oct. 28, 2011 — NASA’s next Earth-observing research satellite, the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP). It’s the first of a new generation of satellites that will observe many facets of our changing Earth. It’s also a bridge platform leading to the launch of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) — the first of NOAA’s next-generation polar orbiting weather satellites.

But the future is unsettled. Current funding for the JPSS program does not support a launch until 2017 — well after the instruments aboard NPP exceed their operational lifetime. This marks the first time since we began relying on weather satellites that a funding shortfall will almost certainly create a data gap. We will be missing a crucial link in the data chain that helps us protect our families, our homes and businesses, and ultimately, the economy from the rampages of severe weather in all of its forms.

Adding worry to worry, funding constraints also threaten to delay the next generation of geostationary weather satellites.

On May 24, I saw firsthand how lives are saved by a sophisticated severe storms forecasting system, and it is this system that is in danger of being compromised by a future data gap. This is a system that serves us better each year — an achievement essential to our well-being and prosperity. Can we afford to turn back the clock to an era when tens of thousands rather than hundreds of people lost their lives because advanced tools had yet to be developed? Where is the wisdom in that? Less-accurate forecasting of severe weather will mean increased property damage and human injuries and fatalities, resulting in higher costs for federal disaster relief and related social programs.

When I began my day on May 24, there was not a cloud in the sky, but there were warnings. Storm flags are again flying — sailor’s warning.

 

Berrien Moore III is dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences and vice president for weather and climate programs at the University of Oklahoma, as well as director of the National Weather Center.