Thursday, June 16, 2011

Australia’s Space Needs: Meteorology Data and Weather Forecast

To kick off my series of Blog posts on Australia’s Space Needs, I have chosen to write a little about Australia’s Metorology Data and Weather Forecasting Space Needs.

Cyclone Yasi bears down on Australia 
(Image Credit: Australian Bureau of Meteorology) 

It seems like such an obvious application where Australia relies an incredible amount on near real-time data from Space, however my guess is that most of us really don’t know what we use, where we get it from, or just how important it is.

Well, Australia, through the wonderful folks at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology uses a whole suite of different space derived data, from an equally impressive set of satellites.

I couldn’t really go past this wonderful summary table from the BoM’s website that can be found here to illustrate my point.
Product Name
Product Description
Data Source
Sea Surface Temperatures (SST)
Channels 3,4,5
Normalised Difference Vegetation Index(NDVI)

Channels 1, 2
Global Solar Radiation
GMS (up to 21/5/03), GOES-9 (from May 03 to July 05), MTSAT-1R (from August 05) 
TIROS Operational Vertical Sounder (TOVS)
NOAA: TIROS Information Processor TIP
Atmospheric Motion Vectors (AMV)
GMS (up to 21/5/03) GOES-9 (from May 03 to July 05), MTSAT-1R (from August 05)
Volcanic Ash
GMS(up to 21/5/03), GOES-9 (from May 03 to July 05), MTSAT-1R (from August 05) or NOAA
Antarctic Sea Ice
Visible Imagery
GMS-1 to GMS-5, GOES-9, MTSAT-1R, NOAA 5 to NOAA-17
Infrared Imagery
GMS-1 to GMS-5, GOES-9, MTSAT-1R, NOAA 5 to NOAA-17
Infrared Coloured Imagery
Colour Enhanced Satellite Imagery
Special Colour Images for Publications
GMS-5 (up to 21/05/03), NOAA, GOES-9 (from 22/5/03 to July 2005), MTSAT-1R from August 2005

The Bureau of Meteorology then goes on to use this data in an almost endless number of applications that we all rely on each day to get on with life, including (but not limited to):
·         Land Temperature
·         Sea Temperature
·         Wind Measurement and Forecast
·         Sea Ice Measurement
·         Solar Radiation
·         Ozone Monitoring
·         Precipitation Measurement
·         Soil Moisture
·         Severe Weather tracking and forecast
·         Vegetation Monitoring
·         Bushfire Prediction
·         Volcanic Ash Monitoring
·         Flood Monitoring and Prediction
·         Overall Climate Monitoring and Climate Change

That’s a long list of applications, and many that Australia relies on day in, day out, expecting the BoM to be keeping its eye on things and providing the general public with the necessary information.

Looking a little further into the sources of the data, you can see the following satellites from the above table:
·         NOAA Satellites (NOAA-5 through to NOAA-17) (USA)
·         GOES-9 (USA)
·         MTSAT-1R (Japan)
·         FY-C2 (China)
·         Previous GMS Satellites (GMS-1 to GMS-5) (Japan)

And oddly enough, despite the long list of applications, and the impressive line up of satellites, Australia has never (please correct me if I’m wrong), contributed a single dollar to any meteorology satellite! We are heavily indebted to the United States of America, Japan and China amongst others, to keep the steady stream of data coming our way.

I can’t suggest that meteorology data from Space is everything we need for weather forecasting – it is one component of many that makes our meteorology and weather forecasting possible.  But just how important is it in the scheme of things?

In the ongoing debates in the United States about the funding for future NOAA polar satellites, they did a comparison of weather forecasting with and without Satellite data, for the weather event known in the US as “Snowmaggedon” in early 2010. (You can see the presentation in Powerpoint here.

The results of this showed that without the satellite data, the forecast would have been wrong by 50%! That’s a fair problem during a serious event like “Snowmaggedon”. It went on to highlight the impacts of this reduced forecast including:

Future errors of this scale could result in flood forecast error providing less time for population to react and increasing risk to life and property (hours vs days)

Aircraft and airline passengers would have been stranded, ground commerce would have been halted with no mitigation plans, population would have been unprepared for paralyzing snow-depth

So we can see that Satellite derived Meterology Data is an absolute critical component in forecasting, and one that served us well for the recent weather related disasters that Australia has gone through – including the Queensland floods, Cyclone Yasi and the Victorian Bushfires.

So tomorrow, when you see that weather forecast on television, read it in the paper, or hear about an impending natural disaster, give a thought to how important Space-based meteorology is to Australia, and how without it, Australia would be far worse off.  

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