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Seely on Science: UW weather scientists at forefront of Sandy forecasts

Seely on Science: UW weather scientists at forefront of Sandy forecasts

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Once again, as a huge storm churned across the Atlantic Ocean, UW-Madison researchers were right in the middle of it — sort of.

As Hurricane Sandy barreled its way toward the East Coast Sunday and an appointment with the history books, about 20 scientists toiled in front of computer screens on the UW-Madison campus at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. Their behind-the-scenes work — providing startling satellite images as well as detailed analysis of what those images were telling us — helped the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service provide forecasts that proved remarkably accurate.

What became perhaps the most frequently broadcast satellite image — a thick, broiling cauldron of clouds that was on a one-minute animated loop so that you could see the storm’s deadly spiral — was provided by UW-Madison. The Weather Channel, at least, credited the university.

Just about a year ago, I spent a week researching a story on UW-Madison’s work with weather satellites and hanging out at the Space Science and Engineer Center, that distinctive campus high-rise with the big golf-ball shaped antenna on top. This is where the satellite institute is housed and it is a veritable den of weather nerds. They carry on a rich tradition. Satellite meteorology was born here in the 1950s when UW-Madison meteorologist Verner Suomi developed cameras and sensing instruments, as well as ways to read and display satellite data, that would usher in a new forecasting age.

Researchers I spoke with for that story, including Steve Ackerman, the institute’s director, described the advances since Suomi. Researchers have refined satellite instrumentation and data analysis until they are now capable of detecting the faintest changes in atmospheric conditions and then using that data to create computer models that inform forecasts that seem to border on wizardry.

“This is evidence of a revolution that’s been going on quietly here for 20 years,” said Jonathan Martin, a professor and chairman of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

All of this science was brought to bear on Hurricane Sandy. And the results were impressive, especially considering that Sandy did not behave like past hurricanes. Many hurricanes reach the waters off the coast and veer northeast, gradually losing strength over the North Atlantic.

But Sandy did something contrary. Herded by high pressure from Canada, she took a left and slammed head-on into the coast shoving water into record-breaking surges and flood levels.

Five days before that maneuver, however, researchers were able to study data from satellites, including tell-tale changes in water vapor and air pressure, and predict the big shift to the west and the coast. Evidence of the air mass from the North that would precipitate the turn, “hardly existed at all,” said Martin, yet the satellites were able to provide the information that belied its presence.

“That move to the left was unusual,” Martin said. “Yet it was well forecasted.”

This is science that obviously makes a difference. The day before the hurricane made landfall, The New York Times ran a front-page story based on the meteorological science that warned people of the seriousness of what was in store, especially the surges that would threaten life and property.

Two days before landfall, Martin said, the New York City subway system, alerted to the likely severity of the flooding, started moving its trains out of danger. The scenes from the last couple of days revealed how real the threat was. Even though the tunnels were flooded, the trains themselves were protected enough to save billions of dollars, Martin said.

Such is the power that grew from the ideas that were rattling around in Verner Suomi’s head all those years ago. Science is the slow but steady accumulation of knowledge and it happens day after day in buildings all across the UW-Madison campus. Quietly, as Martin said.

But sometimes, events happen to shine a light on what has transpired in all of those hidden-away labs. And there they are — the nerds. Doing science. Transforming life. Saving lives.

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