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Satellite set to improve Alaska weather prediction

November 10th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

Alaska's weather service is getting an upgrade; one that will improve weather forecasting for decades to come with the latest technology.

The high-tech weather satellite JPSS-1 is set to launch next week, armed with technology that will make it possible to see sea ice, wildfires, predict possible river flooding, measure temperatures on sea, land and in the atmosphere, and give Alaskans an ever-clearer picture of what is in store weather-wise.

Nate Eckstein, science infusion and technology transfer meteorologist with the NOAA National Weather Service, Alaska Region, said Tuesday that the improved technology has a huge impact on weather prediction, especially in Alaska, where traditional satellites do a poor job of "seeing" conditions.

"Alaska is very large," Eckstein said. "Without satellites, we would have a lot less knowledge about what was going on out there. They are very key to our ability to understand what is going on."

For areas in northern Alaska especially, high-positioned geostationary satellites, which have traditionally been used, are poorly positioned to observe the weather changes. New satellites, however, are polar-orbiting only a few hundred miles above the earth, allowing Alaskans to benefit from better information about a wide range of weather events.

The new satellite, which will be launched Nov. 14, and cost some $1.6 billion, will be equipped with the latest technology. The instruments aboard the new satellite will provide more than 40 data products, many critical for Alaska, including: atmosphere temperature and moisture profiles, precipitation type and rate, clouds and fog, winds, sea surface temperature and ocean color, sea ice extent, snow cover and depth, vegetation greenness indices and health, and volcanic ash and fire detection.

It will also include instruments that can observe weather data even in the dark, which is important in the limited light conditions of winter in Alaska. Scientists equate the technology to having a satellite with night-vision goggles.

The satellite will also be able to differentiate between snow and fog, and will be able to alert aircraft to more precise predictions regarding volcanic ash from the many volcanoes along the state's Ring of Fire.

Microwave technology also allows the satellite to see beneath the clouds to detect the edge of the sea ice, something that is critically important for winter fisheries like the Bering Sea crab fishery.

"These accurate sea ice forecasts have a tremendous impact on many industries," Eckstein said. "It's really critical to be able to know at any time where the ice edge is."

Scientists said the satellite imagery will improve the ability to see small hot spots on the surface of the earth as would be created by small fires. If a fire does start, specific data will improve smoke predictions.

The detailed information will also allow meteorologists to predict where rivers might be in danger of backing up and flooding with the ability to see the entire river system in a way that on-the-ground or even pilot observations can't.

Decades in the making, the satellite that will soon be launched is the first of four, each with a predicted lifespan of seven years. It will join a similar polar-orbiting satellite already in use, doubling the data available to meteorologists and cutting in half the delay in transmitting the critical data to meteorologists.

"The engineering is tremendous," said Mitch Goldberg, JPSS program scientist with NOAA Satellite and Information Service. "Polar orbiting satellites are the backbones of weather prediction. I can't overstate the importance of the data."


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