Katrina, Rita Prompt Push for Better Forecasting

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After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, scientists and weather forecasters are looking at ways to better predict such natural catastrophes. Ed Gordon talks with William Smith, a professor in the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Hampton University's School of Science, about a device that might better predict the path and speed of a hurricane.

ED GORDON, host:

The US Gulf Coast is still recovering from the devastating aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Weather forecasters hope to better predict such natural catastrophes in a few years. William Smith is the primary inventor of a new device which will determine earlier the path and speed of a hurricane. Smith is a professor at the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Hampton University in Virginia. Professor Smith calls his invention GIFTS.

Professor WILLIAM SMITH (Center for Atmospheric Sciences, Hampton University): GIFTS stands for Geostationary Imaging Foray Transform Spectrometer. That's a lot of jargon there, but what it means is it's really a revolutionary instrument for observing the processes within the atmosphere which govern storm development.

GORDON: So help us, if you will, understand what this device can do, for instance, with Katrina. Had this been in place, would we have been able to predict landfall earlier? What does this specifically do?

Prof. SMITH: Tropical storms and hurricanes are steered by the environmental wind flow. Because we do not have accurate wind profiles over the oceans now, we are limited in our prediction accuracy of where landfall will occur to when the storm is fairly close to the coast where we do have wind observations. So with the GIFTS instrument, one would be able to forecast over a much larger time scale the motion of the storm and actually where and when it will landfall.

GORDON: This, obviously, would allow for people to evacuate earlier. What else could, in fact, this assist in?

Prof. SMITH: Well, with regard to tropical storms and hurricanes, in general, we spend about $1 million per mile of coastline that's warned just in preparedness alone. And since hurricane forecasts have an error of about 100 miles per day, the GIFTS instrument would allow more precise landfall predictions and save us a lot of money in preparedness.

GORDON: Professor, we've been talking about tropical storms and hurricanes. Just on the day to day, we hear about Doppler radar with our local news stations and the like. How much would this device be used on an everyday basis? And who, in fact, would use this device?

Prof. SMITH: You know, this device has other weather forecast applications other than hurricanes. And speaking of radar, one of those applications is severe convective storms or thunderstorms and tornadoes. This device can actually observe the convergence of moisture in the low levels of the atmosphere, which gives rise to a severe thunderstorm or a tornado about an hour before such a storm can be seen to be developing on radar or, say, on satellite cloud imagery. So this device would allow one for the first time to give reliable warnings to peoples in localities where thunderstorms are imminent.

Another routine application of the instrument is the initialization of global weather prediction models. Most of our day-to-day forecasts are based on these computer models, and these models require temperature, moisture and wind data to initialize them. GIFTS will provide wind profile data over the oceans for initializing these models which we do not have today.

GORDON: Well, certainly, Professor, we thank you so much for being a part of the show today.

Prof. SMITH: Thank you very much.

GORDON: William Smith is a professor with the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Hampton University's School of Science in Hampton, Virginia.

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