New technology helps improve storm forecast, saving lives, speeding recovery

World Today

When a storm approaches, accurate forecasts are critical. They help save lives during the disaster, and help officials get aid where it’s needed afterwards. New advances in technology are giving officials accurate information sooner. CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy has details.

More than 2500 kilometers from where Hurricane Michael made landfall sits a company that gives hurricane forecasters a better picture of the storms they’re tracking.

“Helping us understand where is this hurricane going to go and then how intense is that hurricane going to be at landfall,” said Kevin Petty, the Chief Science Officer of Vaisala.

It’s a Finnish environmental and industrial measurement company and the largest manufacturer of dropsondes, devices that when dropped from airplanes like the Hurricane Hunters aircraft, gauge temperature and wind speed, direction and pressure in the atmosphere. All key variables that determine what a hurricane like Michael will do.

“In order to predict what’s going to happen in the future you need to understand what’s happening right now,” said Petty. “And you need to have the most accurate information possible.”

Dropsondes were first developed up the road from Denver at the National Center for Atmospheric Research back in the 1970s. They were seen as a way to go where no humans could go, deep inside and right on the edges of hurricanes.

“It’s a targeted observation where we can get these very precise thermodynamic measurements and wind measurements of a hurricane exactly where the research scientists, the forecast centers, need that information,” said Terry Hock. He’s the Dropsonde Program Manager for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR.

The $900 disposable devices, just 40 centimeters long and weighing less than half a kilogram, typically plunge 6,000 meters down to the ocean, recording measurements up to four times per second. Parachutes control the fall. Dropsondes are packed with electronics.

“We have microprocessors here, GPS receivers here, USB connections here, and here are the different sensors,” pointed out Hock. ”Temperature sensor here, humidity sensor here.”

Dropsonde data is transmitted to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which handles weather forecasts. More accurate information about a hurricane’s expected track helps people in a storm’s path make the difficult decision of whether to evacuate or not.

Petty claims dropsondes have improved track forecasts by as much as 20 percent and intensity forecasts by as much as 15 percent.

“Those improvements go directly towards saving lives and property,” he said.

Hock says dropsondes have improved over the years and are constantly being refined.

“It’s not about a paycheck, it’s about the work we do,” said Hock. “It does have an impact on other people. It does have an impact on society.”

That’s something that we’re proud of every time we walk into the building and when we walk out of the building—definitely,” seconded Petty.

It’s high-tech help that’s being provided far from the hurricane zone.