When it comes to storm predictions, there are just two people in the U.S (in reality, two organizations) who are the default experts and get the most media coverage:

NHC: The National Hurricane Center

Bill Read is the top guy at the National Hurricane Center, based in Miami. Read, who has a master’s degree in meteorology and is an alumni of Texas A&M, was in charge of the National Weather Service’s Houston and Galveston facility before taking over the top job in Miami on January 25th, 2008. Read replaced interim Director Dr. Ed Rappaport who himself was given the top slot after the executive meltdown of Xavier William “Bill” Proenza (Rappaport has always stated he didn’t want the job permanently and would hold down the fort until a permanent replacement was decided upon). Proenza was named to the position of director on December 6th, 2006 succeeding Dr. Britt Max Mayfield (didn’t know his middle name was Max did you?). Max Mayfield headed up the NHC for six years, starting out as a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in 1972 and becoming a hurricane specialist in 1987 after earning a master’s degree in meteorology from Florida State University. The NHC announces their storm predictions in May (about a week or so before the start of each season) with an update in August. The numbers on the forecast histories section are from the initial forecast, not the update.

CSU: Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project

Dr. William M. Gray is an Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Science based at Colorado State University (a very long ways away from the path of just about any hurricane) and is part of CSU’s Tropical Meteorology Project. Gray, who has been at the CSU since 1961, is also the head of the university’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences. Although he has been the face of CSU’s predictions since 1983, at the end of 2005 Gray announced he would be letting Philip J. Klotzbach do most of the “heavy lifting” for each year’s study. The CSU folks publish their predictions at the beginning of April (about a full two months before the start of the season) but also make preliminary predictions in December of the previous year (5½ months before the season starts). The numbers used in forecast histories section are from the final April forecasts, not the preliminary December forecasts.

QuikSCAT Mutiny

Xavier William “Bill” Proenza was the director for NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida for a short period of time (less than a year). As mentioned, he was named to the position on December 6th, 2006 succeeding Dr. Britt Max Mayfield who headed up the NHC for six years. Citing a need for a break from forecasting after two extremely tough hurricane seasons (2004 and 2005), Max Mayfield retired from the NHC on January 3rd, 2007, after a 34 year government career.

While Mayfield was a well respected forecaster, the staff of the NHC showed little to no love for his replacement. Just six months after Proenza took the job, 23 of the NHC’s 46 staff members signed a letter calling for his termination. At issue were Proenza’s gruff and reckless management philosophy, alienation of both staff and superiors and the supposed misrepresentation of what would happen with the failure of one specific NOAA satellite.

The satellite in question was QuikSCAT, short for Quick Scatterometer. It was an experimental satellite launched on June 19th, 1999 and by 2007, was the only U.S. satellite available to measure surface winds from space. QuikSCAT was only intended to be in use for 2 to 3 years; the satellite became vital after another NASA scatterometer (aboard a Japanese satellite) failed in 1997 (10 months after deployment) and then even more important when Japan’s ADEOS 2 (Advanced Earth Observing Satellite 2) was lost six years later (insert joke “Adios ADEOS”- you wouldn’t be the first). ADEOS 2 was launched on December 14th, 2002 and had NASA’s SeaWinds scatterometer on board. The satellite functioned normally until October 25th, 2003 when contact was lost after a solar flare (that also took out Japan’s Kodama satellite). Japan gave up on ADEOS 2 on October 31st, 2003.

About two months after taking the reigns at the NHC, Proenza started lobbying Congress for funding for a replacement saying that if QuikSCAT failed, the NHC’s future forecasts could be off by as much as 16%. Staffers (specifically senior hurricane specialist James Franklin), disagreed, saying QuikSCAT is important to forecasting, but not vital (see Reference #4). Hurricane Forecaster Lixion Avila brought the internal power struggle into the public spotlight with comments to the Miami Herald: “I’ve lost a little bit of faith in him… I don’t want to be part of his removal or support him to stay.” Craig Fugate, director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management echoed Avila’s concern: “It certainly is disconcerting that we are now dealing with these issues in the middle of the hurricane season” (see Reference #5).

The QuikSCAT controversy and resulting recalcitrance ended up being Proenza’s undoing; on July 9th, 2007, he was “reassigned” to a position initially unidentified by the NHC. As stated, Deputy Director Ed Rappaport was named the interim director of the National Hurricane Center until a permanent replacement could be found. Rappaport had been with the NHC since 1987 and was named deputy director in 2000. Proenza lasted six months; his tenure was so short that he didn’t guide the NHC through one single hurricane.

Proenza started his career at the NHC as an intern; he graduated from Florida State University with a degree in meteorology in 1967. Before taking over as head of the NHC, Proenza was the Southern Region director of the National Weather Service (1999-2007). After being relieved of duty at the NHC, the unidentified position Proenza took was a return to his old job in Texas (he started back with the NWS on September 23rd, 2007). And one final note: Read was elevated to the position of Director of the National Hurricane Center after his second time applying. On his first attempt, he lost out to Bill Proenza.

Bye-Bye Old Friend:

QuickSCAT was designed as a rapid deploy stopgap (built and launched in less than 12 months) to replace some of the data lost by the failure of the original ADEOS satellite until ADEOS 2 could come online. When ADEOS 2 also failed (maybe they should stop using that acronym?), QuickSCAT became the only functioning game in town. Like NOAA-19 (see below), the satellite is a polar orbiter. QuickSCAT however orbited the planet more than 14 times a day taking just 101 minutes on each pass. Also as mentioned, the SeaWinds scatterometer is what made QuickSCAT so unique; it measured wind speed about 33 feet above the ocean surface and is much more accurate than surface buoys and safer than ships and aircraft.

In 2007, QuickSCAT’s main power source failed and the satellite had to switch to a backup battery (this is what started Proenza’s concern for a replacement satellite). Two years later, the satellite’s spinning antenna began to grind as it started to show signs of wear. On November 23rd, 2009, the component failed pretty much bringing QuickSCAT to the end of its life. Considering the satellite was built and launched in less than a year, designed to last for two and ended up operating for more than ten, I’d say NASA got their money’s worth and a whole lot more.

NASA doesn’t plan on launching a replacement for QuickSCAT until 2016; the 2010 hurricane season will be the first without QuickSCAT since mid-1999. As for what NASA will do without QuickSCAT, there are a number of alternatives the agency can rely upon:

  • MetOp-A: A European satellite with ASCAT, a scatterometer that sees through rain better than QuickSCAT could have, but MetOp-A covers less of the Earth’s surface and measures wind speed at a higher altitude than QuickSCAT…
  • Coriolis: This U.S. Navy/Air Force satellite uses WindSat with passive polarimetric microwave radiometry instead of a QuickSCAT’s dual spot-beam microwave radar to measure wind speed. Similar measurements, but calculated differently…
  • Oceansat-2: An Indian satellite launched in September of 2009 that uses similar dual beam radar like QuickSCAT, but originally designated to download data only when it passed over India…

Rather than me trying to sum it all up, read Dr. Jeff Master’s take on the subject at Weather Underground and Tim Queeney’s thoughts for alternatives to QuickSCAT at Ocean Navigator Online.

So… what else is up there?

As of April 19th, 2010, the following satellites were all alive and well in orbit sending back data used for climate research, forecasting and/or hurricane tracking:

ACRIMSAT: Launched on December 20th, 1999, ACRIMSAT carries an Active Cavity Radiometer Irradiance Monitor, an instrument measuring electromagnetic radiation from the Sun. The Sun’s radiation affects global warming including the melting of the polar ice caps and ocean temperatures. Further study of the Sun is achieved through a satellite called SORCE (Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment). SORCE was launched on January 25th, 2003 and measures the Sun’s X-rays, ultraviolet light and radiation. SORCE’s goal is to study long-term climate change.

Aqua: Launched on May 4th, 2002, Aqua (EOS PM-1) has six different instruments on board to collect data about changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, land, ice, snow covered areas, vegetation and oceans. Specific to hurricane forecasting, Aqua measures sea surface temperatures (SST) and water cycles (rainfall, water vapor, cloud formation, atmospheric precipitation). Aqua is the second EOS satellite following Terra; Aura is the third in the series. Both Aqua and Terra carry a MODIS (Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer), an instrument that gathers photoelectric data of the atmosphere and the planet’s surface. MODIS instruments for example were able to capture the movement of oil in the Gulf of Mexico from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident. The two satellites cover the entire Earth’s surface every one to two days; Aqua makes a south to north track over the equator each afternoon and Terra makes a north to south pass over the equator each morning.

Aura: Launched on July 15th, 2004, Aura uses an array of instruments to measure changes to air quality. How does air quality affect hurricanes: changes in the ozone layer allow more radiation from the Sun to reach Earth’s oceans. That radiation can raise water temperature, giving more fuel to the formation and duration of tropical storms. Two other satellites fly in formation with Aura: CALIPSO (a U.S./French satellite measuring clouds and aerosols) and CloudSat (a U.S./Canadian satellite with advanced radar measuring the complete vertical profile of clouds). A third satellite, PARASOL (another French satellite also measuring clouds and aerosols) was part of the “A Train” configuration of satellites but was moved out of formation in December of 2009.

EO-1: Launched on November 21st, 2000, Earth Observing-1 (part of the New Millennium Program) can measure the effects of hurricanes on terrain after a storm has made landfall. EO-1 is a prototype using smaller and cheaper satellite technology and follows exactly one minute behind another land photography satellite, Landsat-7. That satellite experienced a partial mechanical failure in May of 2003 and now misses about 25% of the land it’s supposed to photograph. Both EO-1 and Landsat-7 cover the United States every 16 days.

GOES: Not one satellite, but an array of satellites covering the U.S., Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Central and South America. GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite: they operate at a stationary orbit of 22,240 statute miles above the Earth and are used as a primary tool for meteorologists in weather reporting and forecasting. The current spacecraft (I through M) have two advanced features over the previous generation (A through C and D through H): small scale imaging allowing scientists to focus on weather in a specific area (down to about 2½ miles) and sounding, a process allowing multiple measurements to increase forecast accuracy.

There are two active GOES satellites in orbit: GOES-11 (launched May 3rd, 2000 and also known as GOES West) and GOES-12 (launched July 23rd, 2001 and also known as GOES East). Three more satellites are in an “orbital graveyard” GOES-8 (launched April 13th, 1994), GOES-9 (launched May 23rd, 1995) and GOES-10 (launched April 25th, 1997) and two others (GOES-3 and GOES-7) were retired and then reactivated for other uses. NOAA has three other Next Generation GOES satellites in reserve already in orbit: GOES-13 (launched May 24th, 2006), GOES-14 (launched June 27th, 2009) and GOES-15 (launched March 4th, 2010). Finally, GOES operations (CDAS- Command and Data Acquisition) are controlled from Wallops, Virginia with a backup in Greenbelt, Maryland at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

GRACE: Launched on March 17th, 2002, the name of this U.S/German joint venture is an acronym standing for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. There are actually two GRACE spacecraft: GRACE I and GRACE II. They fly together about 67 miles apart measuring the Earth’s gravity fields. Contrary to popular belief, the Earth’s gravitational fields are not uniform; specific to tropical weather systems, the GRACE satellites measure ocean mass and deep ocean currents aiding in hurricane forecasting.

Jason-1: Launched on December 7th, 2001, Jason-1 is an extremely important weather satellite for the Atlantic basin storm forecasting as it measures the effects of global ocean circulation and deciphers hot and cold ocean temperatures. Jason-1 (a U.S/France joint venture) also monitors the balance between ocean temperatures and the atmosphere and can gauge ocean surface topography, a key component to predictingEl Niño and La Niña. Jason-1 works together with Jason-2, QuickSAT and GRACE I & II. It was launched to compliment the extraordinary data from TOPEX/Poseidon, another joint venture between the U.S. and France. TOPEX/Poseidon was launched in 1992 and retired in January 2006 after an onboard malfunction five months prior. Jason-2 is better known as OSTM or Ocean Surface Topography Mission. That satellite was launched June 20th, 2008 and flies five days ahead of Jason-1. Both cover 95% of the Earth’s ice-free oceans every ten days.

NOAA-19: NOAA-19 (previously known as NOAA-N’ or NOAA-N Prime) is a polar orbiting satellite that covers the entire planet four times a day. NOAA-19 was launched on May 20th, 2005 and has imaging and sounding capabilities similar to GOES satellites, as well as the ability to measure solar winds. Data from NOAA-19 is shared globally amongst more than one hundred countries. NOAA-19 is the last in a series of polar orbiting satellites (there were 16 in all); the next generation will be known as National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS.

Terra: Launched on December 18th, 1999, Terra is also known as EOS AM-1. As mentioned, Terra was the first in a trio of satellites that include Aqua and Aura; all were designed to measure different parts of the Earth’s environment. This satellite has five instruments on board measuring different aspects of clouds, solar radiation, pollution, land mass and changes to the ocean.

TRMM: Launched on November 27th, 1997, TRMM is an acronym for Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission and is a joint venture between the U.S. and Japan. This satellite specifically helps scientists track the effect of greenhouse gases on the Earth by measuring rainfall in the tropics and subtropics. There are five instruments on board TRMM: three measure rainfall (Precipitation Radar, TRMM Microwave Imager and Visible and Infrared Scanner), one measures cloud properties (Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System) and the final measures lightning (Lightning Image Sensor). The rainfall measuring instruments provide the most relevant data to meteorologists when forecasting and reporting on tropical systems.

Reference #4: Pain, John. “ Hurricane Center Staff Seeks New Boss.” Associated Press. July 5, 2007.

Reference #5: Merzer, Martin. “Hurricane Chief Facing Internal Storm.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. July 4, 2007: Page A6.