High-Definition Weather Forecasting

E-mail Tom Kevan

We've come a long way in understanding and predicting weather conditions. As new sensing, analysis, and communications technologies become available, forecasting becomes more accurate and timely. But we always want more, faster. Well, we just might get our wish.

Until Now
My dad used to stay up so he could catch the weather on the 11 o'clock news. We don't have to do that. Any time, day or night, we can go online to learn what the weather will be—today, tomorrow, five days from now. We can even spice up the experience by watching the weather channel on the cable network, with its graphics and elevator music.

To obtain the information offered by these weather services, we have increasingly turned to technology. On the low end of the scale, technicians regularly sent helium balloons carrying instruments into the sky, repeating the practice several times a day. On the high end, we have taken advantage of satellites' birds-eye view to get more meteorological data further in advance. U.S. and European polar-orbiting satellite capabilities are continually enhanced. For example, scientists around the world can now glimpse into storms with the instruments aboard CloudSat and CALIPSO satellites, which were launched April 28 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Both spacecraft are designed to improve our understanding of Earth's weather by revealing 3D details of cloud conditions.

The More Eyes, the Better
In addition to better technology, we also need more observations over as broad a geographic area as possible. An article in the Wilmington Morning Star recently described a system that might provide a way to meet this need.

The $20 million sensor network would be installed on U.S. passenger planes. Mounted in the nose of the aircraft, the sensing devices would measure weather conditions every few seconds while the planes were in flight.

AirDat LLC is one of the companies that hope to supply the government with the technology for the system. The company's devices would transmit humidity, pressure, temperature, turbulence, location, and altitude readings nearly continuously, as hundreds of commercial aircraft crossed the U.S. The measurements would be beamed via satellite, usually within 60 seconds, to AirDat's headquarters in North Carolina, where 64 computers produce updated regional forecasts every hour.

Early tests of the system by NASA and the National Weather Service indicated that the system would significantly improve forecasting. During the evaluation process, forecasters "detected tornadic conditions earlier and predicted heavy storms, temperatures, and fog more accurately."