These Old Eyes Need New Glasses

An aging satellite that has been in operation for seven years but was expected to last for only five is putting America’s hurricane forecasting ability at risk, according to a story from the Associated Press.


The QuickSCAT satellite "conducts daily surveys of 90 percent of the ice-free oceans, using a so-called radar scatterometer to measure surface wind speed and direction."

The resulting images are not only visually compelling — they provide scientists with fresh information about our planet’s weather patterns.

(For example, this set of images helped scientists understand that the Santa Ana winds that dry out coastal and interior regions of California and help fan the flames of wildfires produce a previously unknown benefit to the region’s fisheries.)

But the cause celebre of QuickSCAT are images like the one above, showing the wind speeds of Hurricane Dora back in 1999.

But scientists may have to attempt hurricane forecasts without the aid of QuickSCAT, according to the AP report:

Certain hurricane forecasts could be up to 16 percent less accurate if a key weather satellite that is already beyond its expected lifespan fails, the National Hurricane Center’s new director said Friday in calling for hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding for expanded research and predictions….

One of Proenza’s immediate concerns is the so-called "QuikScat" weather satellite, which lets forecasters measure basics such as wind speed. Replacing it would take at least four years even if the estimated $400 million cost were available immediately, he said.

It’s in its seventh year of operation and was expected to last five, Proenza said, and it’s only a matter of time until it fails.

Without the satellite providing key data, Proenza said, two- and three-day forecasts of a storm’s path would be affected. The two-day forecast could be 10 percent worse, while the three-day one could be affected up to 16 percent, Proenza said.

That would mean longer stretches of coastline would have to be placed under warnings, and more people than necessary would have to evacuate, he said.

We’ll keep you updated (as we always do) on efforts to replace QuickSCAT and other observation satellites that help bring people the accurate forecasts (we’re not joking here!) that they’ve come to expect.