July 9, 2013
Oklahoma Tornado Watched By NASA Satellites
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
When NASA climate scientists decided to monitor a storm system headed for Oklahoma in the middle of May, they probably weren't expecting to track one of the deadliest and most powerful tornadoes to ever hit the United States.
The deadly EF5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma on the afternoon of May 20, 2013 - ultimately killing 23 people and injuring 377.
One of the NASA observers on that day was a previously planned calibration flight for the agency's Suomi NPP satellite. A joint venture between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the satellite has five onboard instruments dedicated to collecting observations of the ozone layer, land cover, atmospheric temperatures and ice cover, which provides critical insight into global climate.
The calibration flights are supposed to fly directly under Suomi NPP and the information gathered during the flights is used to determine the accuracy of the satellite's measurements and provide additional data for future scientific research.
On the day of the tornado, the researchers, seeing the weather forecast, saw an opportunity to capture data from four different satellites: MetOp-A, MetOp-B, Aqua and Suomi NPP, along with data from the aircraft and a ground site.
The space agency's single-engine ER-2 aircraft approached the area of the tornado at an altitude of about 65,000 feet, just 3,000 feet above the highest cloud top near the tornado's convection, the pilot reported. An air temperature change near the convection slowly pitched the plane up and then back down. Wanting to keep the aircraft as level as possible, the pilot said at that point he turned off the autopilot and manually stabilized the aircraft.
"The plan was to get to the site before the convection started and record the conditions," said Chris Miller, NASA's ER-2 mission manager. "The pilot watched two large storms form in the target area and move northeast. He had no idea there was a tornado embedded in the clouds below."
Information gathered by the ER-2 is expected to improve weather forecasts almost immediately, as NOAA meteorologists are using properly calibrated Suomi NPP information to refine their weather prediction models. In turn, these models can be used to produce forecasts and give warnings that help emergency responders anticipate, watch and respond to tornadoes and other natural events.
The new satellite data is expected to save lives by predicting when severe weather can start.
"This is best performed from a geostationary satellite which provides nearly continuous observations," said William L. Smith, Sr., distinguished professor of Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Hampton University in Virginia. "However, current geostationary satellites do not have the advanced instrumentation flying on polar-orbiting satellites such as Suomi NPP that is needed to observe the atmospheric changes responsible for severe storm development.Â We need to use polar-orbiting satellites for this purpose."
The Suomi NPP mission is designed to bridge NASA's current Earth-observing missions and NOAA's next-generation Joint Polar Satellite System. Suomi NPP carries state-of-the-art technology that the new system, which is targeted for launch in early 2017, is expected to use on a regular basis.