The Trickiness Of Tracking Severe Weather

Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan talks with Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist at Climate Central, a non-profit science journalism organization in Princeton, New Jersey. They discuss wildfires and extreme heat in the Midwest this week and how these climate conditions are tracked by Earth-observing satellites.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

Weather is the story in much of the country again today. Thousands are without power following a band of storms that whipped through parts of the mid-Atlantic region, downing trees and electric power lines - a lot of added misery on one of the hottest days on record. Meanwhile, Colorado is battling the state's worst day of wildfires ever with two people dead.

Already, 35,000 people have been evacuated, and 19,000 acres have burned, and close to 350 homes have been destroyed. President Obama made a disaster declaration and opened the way for federal relief money. On Friday, he toured the devastation in Colorado Springs.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One of the things that I've tried to emphasize is that whether it's fires in Colorado or flooding in the northern parts of Florida, when natural disasters like this hit, America comes together. And we all recognize that there but for the grace of God, go I. We've got to make sure that we have each other's backs.

SULLIVAN: And in the Midwest, a heat wave with temperatures more than 100 degrees could also break records. Scientists say it's unusual, but the highs are expected to keep getting higher. TVs, radios and smartphone apps all tell us about severe weather warnings. And scientists say the accuracy of that information is better than it's ever been.

HEIDI CULLEN: A five-day hurricane track forecast we get today is more accurate than the three-day forecast from just 10 years ago.

SULLIVAN: Heidi Cullen is a research scientist, and she says on average, accuracy for forecasts is now 87 percent nationwide, thanks to the satellite system developed and maintained by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those satellites are even helping in the fight against the wildfires in Colorado.

CULLEN: This data is used by firefighters to help decide where they should place chemical fire retardants. It allows us to help estimate percent containment. So, you know, you can think of sort of the big national forecast but also very, very specific jobs.

SULLIVAN: Now, these are really tight budget times for the federal government, and NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are certainly funded through the federal government. How are they faring?

CULLEN: The annual budget for NASA's earth science division has fallen to below $1.5 billion from about two billion a decade ago. So, you know, we're at a place where we should be moving forward and not moving back. And so right now, you know, there's been launch issues, cost overruns, but also budget cuts. And it think, you know, what we really need to do is just help folks understand what an incredibly important role these satellites play in our daily lives.

SULLIVAN: Heidi Cullen is a research scientist for a science and journalism organization called Climate Central.

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