Challenging Bill Proenza's QuikSCAT numbers

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 5:04 PM GMT on July 04, 2007

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A political storm engulfed the National Hurricane Center this week, with a majority of the senior hurricane forecasters calling for Bill Proenza's removal as director. The most visible issue revolved around the extraordinary focus on the aging QuikSCAT satellite. The public argument put forth by Mr. Proenza was that QuikSCAT data was so vital to hurricane track forecasting that without it, track forecast errors would increase significantly, leading to larger warning areas and increased costs for evacuation and emergency planning.

Focus on QuikSCAT--out of proportion?
On March 16th Proenza went public with the QuikSCAT concerns and associated statistics for the first time, stating that "two- and three-day forecasts of a storm's path would be affected. The two-day forecast could be 10 percent worse while the three-day one could be affected up to 16 percent," with the conclusion," that would mean longer stretches of coastline would have to be placed under warnings, and more people than necessary would have to evacuate." As a result of these comments, a perception arose in the public and among lawmakers that without QuikSCAT, NHC would not be able to provide accurate hurricane forecasts. Legislation was hastily introduced into both the House and Senate to provide an immediate replacement for the $375 million satellite.

Proenza's statements raised several questions: 1) Why the focus on track forecast errors in landfalling situations, when QuikSCAT was widely known to be used in intensity forecasting and for tropical cyclones too far at sea to be accessed by the Hurricane Hunters? 2) Could such specific and significant gains in track forecast error truly be attributed to QuikSCAT? Where did these numbers come from, and why was no uncertainty being attached to them?

Since QuikSCAT data became available, starting in 1999, average track errors for 48-hour and 72-hour forecasts have been reduced by 43 miles and 62 miles respectively. Fully one quarter of this improvement was being attributed by Proenza to QuikSCAT. This was an extraordinary performance increase to attribute to one satellite, and seemed doubtful.

We find out where the QuikSCAT numbers came from
In mid-June, Margie Kieper and I asked Proenza to comment on how he got his QuikSCAT numbers. He cited an unpublished study, "A Two Season Impact Study of Four Satellite Data Types and Rawinsonde Data in the NCEP Global Data Assimilation System", by Tom H. Zapotocny, James A. Jung, John F. LeMarshall and Russ E. Treadon. I contacted one of the authors, who informed me that the study was submitted for publication on January 26, 2007, and accepted for publication in the journal Weather and Forecasting on May 23, 2007. It will probably appear in the October-November time frame, according to the publisher. This raises an immediate problem, since only a privileged few are able to read unpublished research. This limits the possibilities for an informed debate on the issue, and basing important policy decisions on unpublished research is thus normally to be avoided. However, making accurate hurricane forecasts is important enough that such considerations can be excused. Proenza didn't give me any details on the study, other than the fact that QuikSCAT data improved 72-hour and 48-hour hurricane track forecasts by 16% and 10% respectively, for a select group of storms from the 2003 hurricane season. One of the authors graciously sent me a copy of the study, though, and after reading it, I had these observations:

1). The study looked at a very limited number of cases over a six-week period during 2003--only 19 cases were available for 72 hour forecasts. The 19 cases were not 19 storms, just 19 separate forecasts from the 4 hurricanes and 2 tropical storms that occurred during the 6-week study period. This sample is too small to draw definitive conclusions about the impact of the QuikSCAT on tropical cyclone forecasts. The two longest-lived storms during the test period were Fabian and Isabel, storms that spent the majority of their lifetimes far away from land. Since the quality of the observing network increases close to land, particulary when reconnaissance data from the Hurricane Hunters is available, it is reasonable to conclude that the impact of the QuikSCAT data for storms within 72 hours of landfall would be less than for the sample as a whole. The study was not primarily designed to study tropical cyclone track accuracy, so there was no separation out of the cases we really care about--storms 72 hours or less from landfall.

2). The study was done with only one model, the GFS. NHC official forecasts make use of several models, including the GFDL, UKMET, NOGAPS and ECMWF. Consequently, a change in the accuracy of a single model will have only a partial effect on NHC official forecast accuracy. As far as I know, there have not been studies done of the impact of QuikSCAT on tropical cyclone forecasts in the GFDL, UKMET or the ECMWF models. Past studies on the impact of dropsonde data from the Hurricane Hunters, however, show that the GFDL is less sensitive to these data than the GFS is.

3). When I attended the AMS hurricane conference in May 2006 in Monterey, I came across a poster presentation by Dr. Jim Goerss that evaluated the impact of QuikSCAT on the NOGAPS model. His study was far more comprehensive, and included 12 hurricanes, 5 typhoons, and 7 tropical storms from a 6-week period in 2004. The number of cases was 212 at 72 hours, eleven times as many as the study Proenza cites. Dr. Goerss found that QuikSCAT probably improved 24-hour track forecasts by 2.5% (90% confidence of this), but at all other forecast times (48, 72, 96, and 120 hours), QuikSCAT had no statistically significant effect (i.e., zero effect).

It is hard to compare the results from these two studies, since they used two different data assimilation systems. We do not know if they used all the data, or how they treated the vertical impact of the data. The uncertainties are high, and Proenza's simple statement that QuikSCAT data improves hurricane tracks forecasts by 10% and 16% is unreasonable, without at least making mention that these numbers are highly uncertain.

I believe that NHC official forecasts for landfalling storms in the Atlantic would not be significantly affected by the loss of the QuikSCAT satellite. I can't think of a hurricane scientist out there who would defend using a study with only 19 cases that didn't focus on landfalling storms, to make the case Proenza is making--particularly in light of the data from the unpublished Goerss study showing no effect of QuikSCAT data on NOGAPS model tropical cyclone track errors. Proenza should have at least attached some measure of uncertainty to his numbers, which he did not.

One could argue that the study cited by Proenza has undergone peer review, and is thus the only scientific study one can use to make arguments on QuikSCAT's effectiveness. The Goerss study has not been published in a journal, and has not undergone peer review. However, Proenza was making his QuikSCAT accuracy arguments in March, two months before the Zapotocny study he cited had been accepted for publication.

QuikSCAT misconceptions
The numbers pushed by Proenza have led to some potentially serious misconceptions about QuikSCAT. The Congressional Record has this to say about QuikSCAT:

"A single plane gathering data is like a tiny fishing line collecting data only along the single strand of the line. The satellite, on the other hand, provides rich, detailed data horizontally from one side of the storm to the other side, and vertically, from the ocean surface to the top of the storms swirling winds. The QuikSCAT is like a detailed MRI."

Well, QuikSCAT is not like an MRI, it just measures the ocean surface winds. In a letter written by Representatives Melancon and Klein in support of H.R. 2531, there are comments that data from the reconnaissance aircraft are inferior to the data from the QuikSCAT:

"Short-term options for replacing QuikSCAT include hurricane hunter aircraft, buoys, and foreign satellites--all of which will collectively produce inferior data."

There is not a hurricane forecaster anywhere that would trade hurricane hunter data for QuikSCAT. Lawmakers may start cutting aircraft reconnaissance with misconceptions like this. That would be a disaster.

I would hate to lose the QuikSCAT satellite, and have been calling for a replacement since before Mr. Proenza came on the job. QuickSCAT data is invaluable in identifying weak systems and in defining storm structure, particularly of outer wind radii of 34 knots and 50 knots. This is particularly true outside of the Atlantic, where there are no Hurricane Hunter flights, and in the Atlantic beyond where the Hurricane Hunters can reach. Track forecasts for tropical cyclones in the Pacific and Indian Oceans may benefit from QuikSCAT data, since Hurricane Hunter information is not available. QuikSCAT also helps identify when a tropical depression or tropical storm is intensifying.

Besides hurricanes, the QuickSCAT data is invaluable to the Ocean Prediction Center, which now issues hurricane force wind warnings for extratropical storms in the Atlantic and Pacific. Search and rescue missions, and the U.S. Navy also greatly benefit from QuikSCAT. QuikSCAT should be replaced, but not due to a rush knee-jerk reaction that will get us a replacement with old technology. NHC needs a "next-generation" scatterometer, one that has greatly improved capabilities to help tackle the structure and intensity problem. We should take our time, and deal with a gap in coverage, if it gets us an instrument that has higher resolution, higher saturation speed, and is not adversely affected by rain. Such a gap would not put the public at risk.

It greatly troubles me that the most visible and admired member of my profession has failed to use good science in his arguments for funding a replacement of the QuikSCAT satellite. The Director of the National Hurricane Center needs to be an able politician and good communicator, but being truthful with the science is a fundamental requirement of the job as well. Mr. Proenza has misrepresented the science on the QuikSCAT issue, and no longer has my support as director of the National Hurricane Center.

Other critical concerns--lost in the hubbub?
We strongly support many of the valid concerns Proenza has raised. Of particular concern are the slashing of critical research funding for the Joint Hurricane Testbed (JHT) from $1.7 million to $1 million, and the lack of adequate yearly increases to the National Hurricane Center budget. Both of these important concerns still remain to be addressed; they were quickly overshadowed by a frantic campaign by lawmakers to fund a new QuikSCAT satellite. The JHT provides the means for promising research to be tested in the NHC operational environment, usually resulting in a successful transition to an operational product at NHC. This program has been extremely successful, and its budget should have been increased, not slashed. As hurricane activity has increased dramatically over the last twelve years, NHC's budget should have increased accordingly, but it did not.

Proenza also raised legitimate concerns about NOAA's effort to promote their "Corporate Identity" by renaming the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service. The new organizations would be called the "NOAA Hurricane Center" and the "NOAA Weather Service". He also justly complained about NOAA's plan to spend between $1.5 million and $4 million on a "bogus" 200-year NOAA anniversary celebration.

While wanting to take a neutral stand as to whether to call for Proenza's dismissal, Senior NHC Hurricane Specialist Lixion Avila clearly shares the concerns that have been put forth by the other senior forecasters Richard Pasch, James Franklin, and Richard Knabb, and former director Max Mayfield. Avila noted, "If I [was] the director of the hurricane center, I would not spend my time fighting for QuikSCAT--I would be fighting to make sure that the reconnaissance planes are always there." That leaves a vacationing Jack Beven as the only senior hurricane forecaster to not comment publicly on the issue. Max Mayfield has refrained from making public comments on the deteriorating situation these past months, but all of his comments in the Miami Herald article lend support for the hurricane forecast staff. Given his previous experience in the position of NHC Director and his successful tenure, his feedback counts tremendously.

With the busiest part of hurricane season just a few weeks away, expect a decision on Bill Proenza's tenure to be made soon.

Jeff Masters and Margie Kieper

Having lost the support of most of his senior forecasters, and having misrepresented the science on the importance of the QuikSCAT satellite on hurricane forecasts, it would be best for Mr. Proenza to step down as director of the National Hurricane Center.

--Jeff Masters

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1964. C2News
4:16 AM EDT on July 06, 2007
Why are they all against Bill Proenza? Why? He has never done anything wrong to them, and if he did, it was for the good
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1963. RL3AO
3:16 AM CDT on July 06, 2007
That blowup isn't even close to the low. It is about 3 degrees south of it.
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1962. stormybil
8:12 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
stormybil, I don't mean to be rude, but no offense

none taken i ust saw the big yellow ball and it looked like storms were trying to wrap around . if i may say its happen many times before when eveything stoped liked models and disscisions at nhc about a system and they reformed and everyone scratches thier head hehe thanks hey did bill really get fired who will take his place ?
1961. RL3AO
3:13 AM CDT on July 06, 2007
Tuesday and Wednesday morning, it at least had enough convection to get it to midday before it all died...the convection today might last until 9am...maybe.
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1960. CFLSW
8:09 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
NHC may not do or say anything about it untill it gets to the Carb. but it is funny just to keep watching the engine that could LoL.
It seems like it has a will to live and just will not give up. Its going to the Carribean
or bust. LoL
1959. KoritheMan
8:11 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
RL3AO, you are right. I'm not even concerned with it unless its LLC makes into the Carribean intact. That would be days away.
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1958. RL3AO
3:11 AM CDT on July 06, 2007
96L is dead unless something funky happens once it hits the Caribbean.
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1957. KoritheMan
8:08 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
stormybil, I don't mean to be rude, but no offense, it's the diurnal max that is enhancing its convection... I have yet to see 96L's convection persist into the daytime, and UNTIL it does, NHC won't classify it, won't run models on it (they stopped that already, I think), nothing...

Now, if the LLC gets into the Carribean Sea intact, watch out...
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1956. CFLSW
8:07 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
LoL 96L just will not DIE.
1955. RL3AO
3:06 AM CDT on July 06, 2007
The low is still over central Florida.

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1954. stormybil
8:06 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
is that 96l again looking good at 4am what ya think
1953. K8eCane
8:05 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
input sullivan?
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1952. CFLSW
8:02 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Shear there is only 15 to 20 knt
1951. K8eCane
8:00 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
thought trough had already swung up and away and left it there
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1950. K8eCane
7:44 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
yeah has mine too
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1949. CFLSW
7:54 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Looks like the race this weekend may be a bust LoL
1948. sullivanweather
7:53 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Shear is moderately strong, but a pretty big trough is about to swing off the coast, that should pick this right up and rip it apart.
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1947. sullivanweather
7:50 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
There is a circulation off the coast visible on the IR channel 2
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1946. RL3AO
2:50 AM CDT on July 06, 2007
Your right CFL. Very interesting.
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1945. CFLSW
7:47 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Hurricane center list it as Invest on floater2
1944. CFLSW
7:42 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
maybe midlevel Weather guy said it should be a small surface low we will have to watch and see what happens. The way it blewup really caught my eye.
1943. K8eCane
7:42 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
does look suspicious eh?
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1942. CFLSW
7:41 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
I do not think at this time there is.
1941. K8eCane
7:40 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
is there a surface circ?
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1940. CFLSW
7:39 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Also called for smal low to form of west coast.
action 28 said earler this week.
1939. K8eCane
7:38 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
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1938. CFLSW
7:36 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Big blow up off the coast just nort of cape.
Local guy said earler this week we may have something small blowup there.
1937. K8eCane
7:35 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Posted By: CFLSW at 7:32 AM GMT on July 06, 2007.

Anyone watching the east coast of Florida?

whats up with it?
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1936. K8eCane
7:27 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
i find i hrd to believe that a tropival system is gonna sneak up on anyone this day in time with or without quiksat satellite
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1935. CFLSW
7:32 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Anyone watching the east coast of Florida?
1934. TropicalNonsense
7:12 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
If you ask me airing the center's dirty laundry
in the press with the forecasters speaking out
against Proenza is even worse. lol

atleast when Proenza was speaking to the press
it was about Offical Business.

Also Kudos To Max Mayfield for Keeping Silent
during the whole deal. Ya Know That was Hard.

To Bad the Forecasters didnt do the same.
Now Tommorrow it's gonna be all over the News.
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1933. TropicalNonsense
6:58 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
They wont recognize the man because they never
gave him a chance.

What a Joke. The Most appaulling thing to me
though is how no one at The NHC has spoke out
on his behalf knowing full well the critical
importance of the Quicksat and the fact that
even if you disagree with his crusade you have
to know the man meant well. Instead all we hear
is how all the forecasters are supposedly
alligned against him and everyones calling for
his removal.

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1932. MisterPerfect
6:28 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
BONZ, you are a master,

I'll b ein touch
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1931. Rainman32
2:22 AM EDT on July 06, 2007
Heh Skye.. took me awhile to get that rant together, see we are on the same page here.. and yes TayTay that is 96L there.. still alive, QuikSCAT tells us so!
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1930. Rainman32
2:20 AM EDT on July 06, 2007
Something seems to be getting lost in the politics here. Yes Proenza used "flawed intelligence" siting an unpublished report that would be hard to use ultimately supporting the position; as Skye Points out there are plenty of others that could have been used. Apparently he is a horrible manager and politician too. Sooo.. What about QuikSCAT? How about we look at A History of Scatterometry

An excerpt: The NSCAT mission proved so successful, that plans for a follow-on mission were accelerated to minimize the gap in the scatterometer wind database. The QuikSCAT mission ( launched SeaWinds in June 1999.

Well, and did you know that there actually was another SeaWinds on ADEOS II ( Launched in 2002? The The SeaWinds instrument on the ADEOS-II satellite (Midori-II) measured near-surface ocean wind speed and direction. This specialized radar instrument, launched on 14 December 2002, measured winds over 900f the ice-free oceans on a daily basis from 10 April to 24 October 2003, when ADEOS-II irrecoverably lost power.

So just what does this thing do that makes it so special anyhow? well among the Applications: Observing Oceans from Space you find these excerpts

Weather Forecasting – Data from ocean scatterometers greatly enhances overall weather-forecasting capabilities. Most of the weather over the west coast of the United States, and some over the east coast, is generated over the oceans. The measurements derived from ocean scatterometers are assimilated into numerical models (computer programs that represent natural processes in terms of equations), which can be used to predict global and regional weather patterns. The data are delivered to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within two hours, where they are used for timely, accurate weather forecasting.

Storm Detection – The ocean scatterometer data can determine the location, direction, structure and strength of storms at sea. Severe marine storms ­ hurricanes near the Americas, typhoons in Asian waters, and mid-latitude cyclones worldwide are among the most destructive of all natural phenomena. In the United States alone hurricanes have been responsible for at least 17,000 deaths since 1900, and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage annually. If worldwide statistics are considered, the numbers are substantially higher. Although typically not as violent as hurricanes and typhoons, mid-latitude cyclones exact a heavy toll in casualties and material damage.

In recent years, our ability to detect and track severe storms has been dramatically enhanced by the advent of weather satellites. Cloud images from space are now routine on weather reports. Data from ocean scatterometers augment these familiar images by providing direct measurements of surface winds to compare with the observed cloud patterns. These wind data help meteorologists to more accurately identify the extent of gale force winds associated with a storm, and provide inputs to numerical models that provide advanced warning of high waves and flooding.

Oh and stuff about Oil and Food Production, El Niño, etc..

Well, well so this was already on NASA's site and Proenza isn't the first person to champion this very useful tool.. I Wonder how all of the scientists at JPL feel about it?

Folks don't throw out the baby with the bathwater, Try to find anything close to it Remotely Sensed Ocean Surface Winds

Your gonna miss this:

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1928. TayTay
6:18 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
I can't believe someone brought up 96L! Let it die!
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1927. sfranz
6:18 AM GMT on July 06, 2007

Oh, they will by tomorrow. Google has it as a leading story in 286 papers, not counting CNN.
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1926. Skyepony (Mod)
6:13 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
Nice Bonz...

Now may be easier than come end of season if the people of FL or another state ends up watching him for hours on TV, heeding his warnings. Until then the general public really doesn't reconize him.
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1925. Skyepony (Mod)
6:10 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
NASA 2000 study looking at all the 'canes that year.

There is many more studies by NASA, NOAA & etc... google
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1924. MisterPerfect
6:12 AM GMT on July 06, 2007

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1923. Bonz
1:43 AM EDT on July 06, 2007
I have news for the staffers at the NHC. Do they REALLY THINK that ousting Proenza is going to restore public confidence? It will erode it further!

Sounds to me like Proenza didn't kiss enough booty both at the NHC and further up the chain and this is all petty politics. Plus - heaven forbid, he EMBARRASSED them.

Too bad. Quite frankly, the NHC hasn't done a stellar job of forecasting over the years. Oh yeah, they can tell you a day or maybe two before a storm hits where it'll go.

Big deal. With online images, we can do that ourselves. And no, I'm not a troll for saying that. I'm someone who has lived in S. Florida since 1981 and has followed the forecasts and such each year.

They need to concentrate on doing the job better, not trying to oust the new director because he's pointing out problems and making them look bad to the public. The little petition made them look worse.

Sometimes pointing things out privately doesn't work. Especially in the government. Sometimes you have to yell. And people don't like that. Especially from someone new.

I knew the minute he opened his mouth he was gone. I figured though, they'd try to sneak it in at the end of the season once people weren't paying attention.

But he really must have angered someone. Because they're not waiting. They're after him now. And you better bet that the next director won't go to the bathroom without raising his hand and getting permission first. Who loses? We do. Let's sweeeeep those problems under the rug! Nothing to see here! Move along, Sheeple. Surely there is a Paris Hilton story that you should be watching.

I don't pay my taxpayer dollars to the forecasters at the NHC to do this crap. You're there to do your job. That doesn't include "saving face".
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1922. sfranz
6:03 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
I have to wonder, from the comments I've read if the core problem may be the academic hierarchy butting heads with the political one.

The funny thing is you really need both. You need really good science, and you need people really good at keeping the money coming.

Each is a professional in their own field, and you have to give each one their due respect.

Otherwise, you end up with a lot of talented scientists without enough money for coffee on day 82 of hurricane season.

OK - I'm still rooting for 96L.

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1921. Skyepony (Mod)
6:03 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
NOAA's 2004 study
Wind retrievals from various scatterometers flown onboard satellites have been available to OPC forecasters over the last ten years and were used with some success. QuikSCAT winds are now fully integrated into OPC operations and have proven to be invaluable. The wide swath width and all weather capabilities have enabled OPC forecasters to use these winds routinely to determine the extent and magnitude of strong winds, the location of fronts and pressure systems, and wind gradients associated with oceanographic thermal features. Since the inclusion of QuikSCAT into OPC operations the marine forecaster's ability to accurately assess wind conditions over the open oceans has never been better.
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1919. wareaglesprinkle
6:00 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
If he resigns and the satellite fails everyone will point fingers if a 3 or higher storm hits the US. He is trying to do the right thing.
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1918. Skyepony (Mod)
5:59 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
There's NASA's study too...

NASA’s QuikSCAT satellite is providing meteorologists with accurate data on surface winds over the global oceans, leading to improved 2- to 5- day forecasts and weather warnings. The increased accuracy, already being used in hurricane forecasts, is bringing economic savings and a reduction in weather-related loss of life, especially at sea, according to a recent NASA study.
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1917. PensacolaBuoy
12:49 AM CDT on July 06, 2007
Skyepony, those are very interesting studies. I haven't seen any of those referenced in the news. There are some big differences among the studies, but all indicate the satellite provides useful, impactful information. All information has the potential to fill in one of the countless variables in hurricane prediction.
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1915. Skyepony (Mod)
5:39 AM GMT on July 06, 2007
I keep seeing this about the one study is the only one he could have used. There are other studies. NWS-OPC has done 4 studies.

Results of the 1st one being...

Examination of the results showed that the number of warnings issued when QuikSCAT winds were used in the forecast process increased by 30% in the Atlantic and 22% in the Pacific .
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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