The failing QuikSCAT

Most of you weather enthusiasts have probably already heard about this, but since there are a fair number of you that come by here that aren’t completely absorbed in the latest weather news, I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

In short, QuikSCAT is the only instrument we have to measure surface winds over the ocean [1]. It makes images that look like this one of Hurricane Katrina. And this one of Hurricane Frances:

Hurricane Frances QuikSCAT satellite image

Due to various technical problems, it’s ability to continue transmitting data back to Earth is very uncertain. Bill Proenza, the new Director of the National Hurricane Center, has come under heavy criticism from superiors at the NOAA for speaking about the vulnerable condition of the satellite (source).

What does that mean for you and me? Larger evacuation zones (since storm intensity would be much less certain) and a measurable decline in the accuracy of forecasting tropical cyclones—some say by as much as 16%. Oh, and it may take until 2016 to replace it.

I’m not going to go on a crusade against the politics behind it; that isn’t my purpose. And I also don’t want to contribute to any doomsday media frenzy. But as someone that’s spent his entire life benefiting from this instrument I can’t help but wonder what the practical effects of this could be for those living in tropics. After all, it runs completely counter to what we hear every year: that the accuracy of our forecasting system is increasing.

Can you imagine Dr. Steve Lyons saying “well, last year we would have had a better idea, but as far as this storm is concerned we really can’t be sure”?

Better gas up early!

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