PROVO Forecasters trying to predict the bruising path of Hurricane Ike used data developed and supported by a team at Brigham Young University.
Engineering professor David Long helped write computer code for a satellite sensor that provides important information about the wind speed and wind direction of ocean storms.
The sensor, known as SeaWinds, was launched aboard the QuikSCAT satellite in 1999. The sensor produces images processed by Long and two graduate students.
Forecasters and others interested in Ike can view the sensor's images of the hurricane at manati.orbit.nesdis.noaa.gov by clicking on QuikSCAT Storm Page and the latest or previous BYU "hi-res," or high-resolution, links.
The satellite sensor, also known as a scatterometer, has already provided captivating infrared-style images of the winds of Ike striking Cuba.
Long said his work has some similarities to the way trackers researched the path of tornadoes in the movie "Twisters."
"They were using radar to measure the circulation of the storm," he said. "We're doing something similar from space, and we're trying to do it on a larger scale."
Long and his students recently developed computer-processing techniques that produce higher-resolution images for forecasters who get real-time data from the sensor. The BYU team also reprocesses the information after forecasters look at it to learn more about hurricane tracking.
BYU's active research involves measuring the rain in hurricanes.
"We're a small player in the hurricane-forecasting business," Long said. "There are many other tools, but the scatterometer is a small but very powerful tool. This information helps forecasters better understand the structure of a hurricane."
Long is the director of BYU's Center for Remote Sensing. He brought the hurricane work with him to the university from his previous job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he directed work on the predecessor to SeaWinds and QuikSCAT, the NASA Scatterometer.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration provides grants to BYU for Long and his team to create data for hurricane tracking.
Weather planes and ocean buoys also provide data on windspeed and direction but not in the wide area that QuikSCAT does.
The satellite circles Earth every 101 minutes, but it's running on borrowed time.
QuikSCAT could fail at any moment, without warning, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Robert Gaston told the Associated Press last year.
The satellite was designed for a three-year mission when it was launched in June 1999 as an interim replacement for a previous scatterometer. A replacement satellite, ADEOS II, failed in 2003. Another replacement for the aging satellite was scheduled to launch in 2009 but has been pushed back to at least 2016, according to the AP.
The loss of QuikSCAT would be a setback for hurricane forecasters. How big a setback is a matter of peppery debate.
Then-National Hurricane Center director Bill Proenza predicted last year that hurricane forecasts will be 16 percent less accurate when QuikSCAT fails.
Proenza told the AP a replacement would take four years and $400 million to develop. Without the data, longer stretches of coastline would have to be placed under warnings two and three days before a hurricane was expected to reach land.
About 15 years ago, the average accuracy of a hurricane forecast two days before the storm reached land was within about 225 miles. Now, because of QuikSCAT and other tools, the average prediction is within 110 miles.
Evacuation of coastline areas can cost up to $1 million per mile, according to the AP.
"QuikSCAT is part of a sensor suite forecasters use to make predictions," Long said, "particularly in long-range forecasting."
Experts told the AP the margin of error for hurricane predictions without QuikSCAT could grow 10 percent to 122 miles.
Three-day forecasts could be off by 16 percent.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Conrad Lautenbacher also told the AP the failure of QuikSCAT would bring more uncertainty to forecasts.
A month after two AP stories last year about QuikSCAT's imminent failure, Proenza was fired. He had been criticized by some senior researchers who believe the loss of QuikSCAT would have a more minor effect on predictions.
The debate over the next step in satellite hurricane sensors remains intense, with sides questioning whether QuikSCAT should be replaced with a similar instrument or if the United States should develop a more advanced satellite.
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