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Steve Ackerman, director of the Cooperative Institute for Meterological Satellite Studies, is shown with an array of satellite dishes on the roof of UW's Space Science and Engineering Center in Madison.


Wayne Feltz is a self-described weather geek. Last week, he stood one afternoon on the wind-whipped roof of UW-Madison's Space Science and Engineering Center, where he works as a researcher, and stared up through the canopy of dish antennas that top the building like some crazy, bristly hairdo.

"We're running out of room!" Feltz shouted.

There was a hint of geeky pride in the pronouncement. And why not?

Thanks to what researchers such as Feltz are accomplishing in this building, you will be accurately forewarned this winter of the snowstorms that will turn your driveway into a ski hill. Hunched over their computers, scientists here have advanced meteorology to where we can now literally peer into the future and predict everything from the landfall of hurricanes to the formation of tornados.

This wizardry is made possible almost entirely by what experts agree is the greatest innovation in weather forecasting since the woolly worm — high-tech satellites. Both orbiting and stationary satellites now allow researchers to see otherwise invisible atmospheric signs that tell of the formation and movement of the weather systems that so affect our lives. The advent of satellite weather forecasting had its beginnings here in the late 1950s with science that led to the launching of the first instrument-laden satellite. Such innovation continues, as was evidenced by the announcement that a new satellite loaded with UW-Madison technology was sent into space in late October as well as news of a super computer taking shape in the building that will allow for even better forecasting and weather science.

Jeff Craven is a meteorologist and the science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Sullivan, near Milwaukee, who relies heavily upon the UW-Madison research. He said the greatly improved forecasts would not be possible without the science that gets done behind the scenes at the Space Science and Engineering Center and by scientists with the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, which is housed in the center.

"I think it would be difficult to quantify just how much what they do impacts us," Craven said. "You're not surprised by hurricanes anymore. You're not surprised by storms moving in from the coast."

Technology does wonders

All of this, Craven said, is due to satellite technology. The instruments aboard the satellites can capture images in parts of the spectrum we can't see and allow weather scientists to get telltale glimpses of otherwise invisible phenomenon, such as water vapor. They then translate that information into numbers that can be plugged into the formulas, or numerical models, that give meteorologists their forecasts. In other words, weather scientists are able to see and interpret data that they simply didn't have before satellites.

"All the numerical weather forecasting models the National Weather Service uses here and in our headquarters in Washington D.C. use satellite data," said Craven. "Satellite data is almost single-handedly responsible for improving our forecasts." 

Steve Ackerman, director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, is not one to boast. But, in the midst of a discussion about satellite science, he almost shyly tells of others describing UW-Madison as "the mecca of satellite meteorology."

So much satellite data pours into this building that it is almost possible to envision it coming down as heavy rain. And not only have the scientists here spent years designing the weather instruments aboard the satellites, they've also collected and archived the data from those instruments. About 30 years of weather data resides in the building's computers, information that is crucial for better understanding long-term climate trends.

Researchers here have even come up with ways for that information to be gathered freely by anyone anywhere in the world with a laptop and an antenna — the Wisconsin Idea writ globally. That weather data isn't just used by folks worried about a forecast for their weekend camping trip. It can be used by susceptible Third World countries to warn millions of typhoons and tsunamis and hurricanes. It can help farmers decide when to plant and harvest. It can help guide ship captains and airline pilots around storms.

This is science that can save lives.

"This isn't just a bunch of eggheads at the UW-Madison doing something because it's fun," Feltz said.

Liam Gumley, a weather researcher who has helped develop the technology that has allowed the free sharing of the hard-earned weather data, called UW-Madison's decision to make the science available "a great gift to the world."

Research and discovery

None of this happened by accident. It comes from a rich legacy of research and discovery. It was here that UW-Madison meteorologist Verner Suomi, working with engineer Robert Parent, founded the field of satellite meteorology by developing a camera that holds its focus on one part of the globe as well as a sensor that records temperature and moisture for the ground and for cloud tops. As important, Suomi came up with a way to translate complicated weather data from satellites into computer graphics that could be more easily used for forecasting and reporting. It was this work that resulted in the launch of the first weather satellite in October 1959.

That type of groundbreaking science continues. In late October, the world's newest weather satellite, carrying cutting edge instruments designed in part by UW-Madison weather scientists, was launched from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. The satellite carries instruments — including one designed years ago by UW-Madison weather scientist Hank Revercomb that uses infrared technology to probe more deeply into clouds — that are being tested for weather and climate research use over the next decade. Data from the satellite started flowing into the control room of the Space Science and Engineering Center last week.

"If it's weather satellite data, we have it," Ackerman said.

Forecasts more precise

Just how much difference has all this technology made? Can we really be more certain today of a forecast than we were five or 10 years ago? Ackerman said the answer is most certainly yes. Especially with regard to temperatures, forecasts are likely to be dead-on three days out, he said. Forecasts of precipitation are not quite so certain, he added, largely because it remains difficult to image and interpret the formation and behavior of ice crystals that can eventually transform into rain or snow or sleet.

Ackerman uses the example of three different historic storms to illustrate the improvements in forecasting. The first was the notorious Armistice Day storm of 1940 that caught duck hunters on the Mississippi by surprise and killed 150 of them. The second was the November gale of 1975 that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald and caused havoc and death all across the Upper Great Lakes.

The last was a storm that, like the others, blew through on Armistice Day in 1998 packing a similar furious punch. But forecasters, Ackerman said, were "spot-on" with their predictions of the storm's movements and intensity. And forecasting for that storm passed the ultimate test.

"Nobody died," Ackerman said.