Satellites key in predicting killer storms

Published On: Apr 28 2014 01:37:46 PM HST   Updated On: Apr 30 2014 08:45:52 AM HST

Tornadoes ripped across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas Sunday night killing at least 15 people and injuring dozens.

When severe weather develops, it's first detected by satellites, which beam images and data back to forecasters on the ground.  

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The nation's fleet of weather satellites can alert forecasters to a developing storm up to seven days out. And that data is transmitted within seconds around the globe.

Just outside the nation's capital, an around-the-clock operation serves as central hub of critical weather information. Giant antennas take in some 16 billion bytes of data from 16 satellites every day.

"These antennas up here on the roof then take the data, pull it in and that's where the supercomputers down in this building grab it," said Michael Condray, with NOAA's satellite and product operations.

And engineers like Stan Abney process it.

"Right now I'm getting ready to set up for a pass with Fairbanks, one of our sites we take data from. As the satellite goes across, we capture data from Fairbanks or Wallops," said Abney.

It was data like this that gave forecasters a heads-up days in advance of the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes in decades -- storms that killed 300 people in six states in April 2011.
Giving forecasters advance warning that a potentially deadly storm is brewing could save lives.

"These folks will command the satellite and tell the satellite to focus its attention onto one particular area and start taking very rapid pictures," said Condray.

NOAA is working to launch the next generation of weather satellites, but for now the program remains on a federal high-risk list.

The Government Accountability Office cites the potential for a gap in satellite data if older satellites fail before new ones can be put in place.  
NOAA said a satellite data gap could result in less accurate forecasts. The Commerce Department's inspector general said cost overruns and delays are to blame.

NOAA said the next wave of polar orbiting satellites will begin launching in 2017.

A new geostationary satellite is scheduled to launch in early 2016.

Even if those schedules are met, the inspector general said we could see 10 to 16 months of limited satellite coverage.


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