Seeing Sandy From Space

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What does satellite imagery reveal about Hurricane Sandy? Owen Kelley at NASA is using satellite data to visualize the internal structure of the storm and Marshall Shepherd, president-elect of the American Meteorological Society and the director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, discusses what made this storm so unusual.


Next stop, our Sandy coverage continues with the Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora. Flora Lichtman's here.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira. Yeah, how could we resist?

FLATOW: And how can we add something no one has ever seen?

LICHTMAN: I think we might be able to this week.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

LICHTMAN: I mean, NASA and NOAA are producing tons of neat visualizations of Sandy. And I think a lot of people are familiar with the blue marble ones where you see the Earth in the background, and you see this enormous, I mean really enormous puff of clouds traveling up the coast. But that's not the only thing that satellites are looking at. They're not just looking at Sandy. They're looking in Sandy. And I think that actually - that some of the images that these satellites are producing - this imagery is producing - have escaped the media this week.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's see if we can get - let's see if we can get a clip.


OWEN KELLY: The TRMM satellite is one of the best-kept secrets of NASA.


LICHTMAN: The TRMM satellite and the secret's out.


LICHTMAN: That was actor(ph) Owen Kelly(ph) at NASA Goddard. And basically what the satellite does is it takes radar data and images the insides of storms and...

FLATOW: It's like a CAT scan of a - like you get your body CAT scanned. He's got the CAT scan of the inside...

LICHTMAN: Right, exactly. Except it's not an X-ray but radar.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And we have an expert, actually, on the line, a special guest for Pick of the Week this week...

FLATOW: All right.

LICHTMAN: tell us more about it. J. Marshall Sheppard is the president-elect of the American Meteorological Society and the director of the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia. Welcome to the show.

J. MARSHALL SHEPPARD: It's great to be here.

LICHTMAN: So what can we learn about hurricanes by looking inside of them?

SHEPPARD: Yeah. Well, hurricanes are basically like big heat engines. And over the years we've gained a great deal of knowledge in telling the public where hurricanes are going. In other words, our hurricane track forecasts are quite good. Where we suffer some is the intensity forecast. We still have a limited knowledge in that regard. By looking inside the storms, essentially popping the hood, if you will, we can actually see the engine. Now, we can't see the engine directly, but we can see the rainstorms. And the rainstorms are basically signatures of energy being released in the hurricane. And so by being able to identify these big pistons, if you will, in the engine, we can say something about intensity processes, the rain potential of a storm. And ultimately some of this data may find its way in the future into our computer models, which hopefully would improve intensity forecasting.

LICHTMAN: Did popping hood of Sandy reveal anything interesting?

SHEPPARD: Yeah. We could see - as Sandy was moving up the - towards the north, taking these CAT scans and looking at these rainstorms, we could clearly see that there's a very well-defined system, tropical system, with an eye and a well-defined eye wall. The eye wall is the region of a thunderstorm surrounding the eye. That was telling us quite a bit. This storm is still fairly organized. And even as Sandy moved further north and got over the warm Gulf Stream waters, there we saw intensifications just prior in the hours - prior to landfall because it was really tapping into the fuel. Fuel supply for hurricane is warm water. And the warmer the water, the higher the octane for that engine, if you will. So it's really a very different view of storms and one that NASA has pioneered.

I worked for 12 years at NASA, at Goddard Space Flight Center, working on the TRMM mission and also as the deputy project scientist on the mission that would follow TRMM, the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, or GPM.

LICHTMAN: Now, I heard that the GOES satellite was down a few weeks before Sandy, and we had to rely on a back-up satellite. Do you think that the satellite - our satellite coverage is sufficient to monitor storms like this, going forward? I mean, are they being replaced as they age?

SHEPPARD: Yeah, well, that's an interesting question. I always tell people satellites are not like light bulbs. Once one goes down, you can't run down to Home Depot and replace it with another. You have to have a few years to plan. GOES-13 did go out several weeks ago. Luckily, we had a spare, GOES-14, that we could be place, and that really helped to prevent any lapses in coverage or any danger. But what if we didn't? I think that's a reasonable question. What if we did not have GOES-14 or GOES-13 there? Those are satellites - geosynchronous satellites that are really the eye-in-the-sky for much of the eastern United States and the hurricane basin of Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

There has been some discussion. There was a recent National Research Council report out, and there are other discussions about whether we would see a potential gap in some of our polar satellite coverage here in the United States out and around the 2017 timeframe. Our satellites are aging. NOAA does have a plan in place. We have the JPSS and the GOES-R satellite programs that are forthcoming. But due to budget pressures and other things that have been going on here in the environment in the last two years or so, there's a real concern of whether we would see a gap.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can tunnel through that Washington-speak that you just spoke for a minute and see if I can put it simpler language. Tell me if I'm wrong. We may lose a satellite because the Congress is not going to appropriate the money for it.

SHEPPARD: Well, that's a good way to put it. We...


SHEPPARD: As I mentioned, we can't just pop the satellite up there. It takes many years of engineering, testing and then launch. And so we have a plan in place. There is a program in place, but you have to have the money. We can't essentially put these satellites on layaway, if you will. So we really need to have the budget in place and the commitment. And I think that NOAA and our colleagues there are committed. I think that there is a desire because we've been - even more so with things like Sandy, we realized the value of these satellites, not just for monitoring the storm, but 85 to 95 percent of the data from these satellites go into our forecast models. And it shouldn't be missed that Sandy was picked up by some of our best forecast models and the European models eight, nine days out. That's unprecedented or unheard of even 10 years ago.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman, talking with J. Marshall Sheppard, president-elect of the American Meteorological Society.

LICHTMAN: Is there a satellite technology that, you know, you wish you had, some kind of next-generation super-satellite?

FLATOW: Yeah. What if we give you a blank check?

Forget Congress. We'll give you a blank - maybe we'll call Donald Trump up and ask if he can give you a blank check...


FLATOW: ...and give you money for the satellite that you would like.

SHEPPARD: Well, I have my birth certificate and my passport, so I think I'm safe.


SHEPPARD: But, you know, one of the things - and I may be a bit biased, but some of the technology that, for example, flies on some of the low Earth orbiting satellites like the radars that TRMM flies and the GPM will fly, and even some of the laser technologies that we now have for things like monitoring the surface hide(ph) of the ocean, these can only fly on low Earth orbiting satellites.

But boy, it would really be great to have a precipitation radar or that type of capability on some of our geosynchronous satellites, which basically stay parked and monitor the same location over the Earth. Now, those geosynchronous satellites are at about 35,00 kilometers or roughly, you know, 23, 24 thousand miles up. So technologically it's a bit challenging now to put radar on a geosynchronous satellite, but it would be really groundbreaking and an advance if we could.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. You know, we talked for the last part of this hour about climate change and infrastructure and how to prepare for storms like this. And you have had a really instructive analogy for how to link this storm with climate change. Will you walk us through it?

SHEPPARD: Yeah. Well, I think that the previous segment talked about the DNA of climate change is apparent in Sandy through the sea level rise. I really like that analogy about lifting a basketball court an inch or - I'm sorry, a foot or two because you - which means you'll get more slam dunks. The analogy I used is also a sports analogy. During Major League Baseball, during the steroid era, we know that there are more home runs and longer homeruns being hit, likely due to steroids. Although any individual home run during the season I couldn't conclusively link to steroids, we know that there was an era of longer home runs and more home runs.

I think that's kind of how we are looking at - and from my perspective, at least - Sandy. I think we have primed the system for more intense storms going forward. Although every single storm might not be a Sandy, with warmer sea surface temperatures and an atmosphere that can hold more water vapor because it's warmer, we've essentially primed the pump for more storms though. I think climate change, if you will, is the steroid on storms of the future. We can't link any individual storm, but I think we can show that there is a footprint on the overall intensity increases.

We can't say much, I would argue, about how more frequent these types of storms will be. I don't think our science and the literature is there, but there is some informative literature by colleagues at NOAA like Tom Knutson and Bender which suggests that we would see more intense storms.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, because the heat on the sea surface is that fuel, right, for those...

SHEPPARD: Absolutely. One of the interesting things about Sandy is it did a - it was a hybrid system in more than one way. It was hybrid system in that it was a hurricane and then became extra-tropical storm. But if you think about hybrid cars, it was getting its fuel from the ocean for the first half of its life cycle, but then it transitioned to a mid-latitude cyclone and its getting its fuel from the atmosphere. And that's the difference in these types of storms.

LICHTMAN: Thank you, Dr. Marshall, for - Dr. Sheppard, for joining us today.

SHEPPARD: Oh, I was happy to be here.

LICHTMAN: Marshall Sheppard is the president-elect of the American Meteorological Society and the director of Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia.

FLATOW: And there's a great video up there - up on our website. It's our Video Pick of the Week that shows the - what we're calling the CAT scan of Sandy.

LICHTMAN: Yes, of Sandy. Some of the images, I think, most people haven't seen. And also, even the ones you have seen - I don't know if you've seen the full video of it rolling up the globe. It really puts Sandy in context.

FLATOW: And also part of the video that we didn't get into, we didn't hear from anybody else, is that that high pressure front that bumped Sandy westward, made it take a left hook, was sitting over Greenland, right?

LICHTMAN: Yes. Dr. Sheppard told us this in the video, that they seem to be linked, that that warming above Greenland over the summer that caused all that melting may be linked to actually what caused Sandy to turn left.

FLATOW: And you can see - you actually see the images of Greenland melting also in our video. It's quite dramatic.


FLATOW: Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. We've run out of time on SCIENCE FRIDAY for this hour.

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