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Technology taking the mystery out of Mother Nature
By Camille Feanny
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- When wild weather decides to blow into town, it's always unstoppable and often unforgiving. But over the last few decades, several high-tech tools have improved man's ability to predict Mother Nature.
"We've been able to improve our warning system. Our records on tornado warnings, hurricane warnings, on flood warnings have been improving," says Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"For instance, we're as accurate today on a five-day forecast as we were 15 years ago on a three-day forecast. So that improvement is almost a doubling in the accuracy of forecasting."
In some regions, that reality has translated into lives saved.
The impact of severe storm activity during the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season proved devastating on several Caribbean islands.
In the United States, the four hurricanes that hit Florida killed about 110 people.
Scientists say that without today's warning systems, each one of those storms might have had a more devastating death toll. In comparison, a single Category 4 storm that hit Florida in 1928 killed nearly 2,000 people at a time when the state had a much smaller population living on, or near, the coast.
"Thousands of people have been lost, and [people] continue to be lost today in heavy storms. Yet our numbers are down. So the beneficial change has just been enormous," Lautenbacher said.
Eye on the sky
A global network of sensors, satellites and other equipment keeps a constant lookout for changes in the skies and the surrounding atmosphere.
High-flying geostationary satellites and low-flying earth-orbiting satellites (or polar orbiters) are equipped with sensors that give scientists a telescopic view of weather patterns as they travel around the planet.
Each type of satellite has a unique function, which works together to ensure effective global observation. While polar orbiters circle the Earth at a close distance and provide high-resolution data, geostationary satellites remain in place above the equator and maintain a wide, continuous view of the planet.
Today, satellites are invaluable forecasting tools -- helping meteorologists spot any rapid changes in weather patterns, and providing the backbone to effective early-warning systems.
For a more down-to-earth analysis, aircraft-mounted sensors and weather balloons monitor atmospheric conditions like air circulation, jet streams and other activity that is typically not detectible by satellites. Modern radar systems, such as Doppler, are used to analyze wind activity, and monitor thunderstorms and tornadoes around the globe, by helping to track the growth, movement and severity of storms.
Out on the ocean, buoys and other equipment measure temperature changes on the sea surface and signal if a developing storm is on the horizon.
But despite the impressive technology, scientists say that the most important innovation in the world of weather is not a high-tech gadget. They say computer modeling is the foundation of modern meteorology, and the primary tool researchers use to generate forecasts.
By pulling data from the various monitoring systems like radars and satellites, and combining it with information about weather patterns and atmospheric conditions, scientists strive to accurately predict long- and short-range climatic changes.
"The advances in modeling has significantly improved, and probably is the most important increment of the advantage we have today that we didn't have 15 years ago. And I anticipate an improvement in our ability to have a great deal more accuracy in the 24- to 48-hour forecasting range," Lautenbacher said.
Focus on the future
Experts at NOAA are quick to point out that the future of climate prediction looks bright, as the evolution of how current technologies are applied continues to expand beyond weather prediction.
Their Global Earth Observing System of Systems is a 10-year, multibillion-dollar program that unites more than 60 countries on a single mission to link the world's weather observation systems. The goal is to better understand how all aspects of the global environment relates to each other.
"When you look across the spectrum of benefits that could be gained from Earth-observing data, they are just enormous. Right now, 30 percent of our economy is based on information that we obtain just from today's systems. Imagine how it will be if we are able to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the Earth really works -- system by system -- and how it's connected," Lautenbacher said.
The goal is to collect, combine and analyze land, ocean and atmospheric data from planetary observation and research. The information would then be used to develop better warning systems and other tools that provide a critical defense against impending natural disasters like storms, droughts, tornadoes and tsunamis.
Additional programs also are being proposed that could lead to long-term ecological and economic benefits. Governments and scientists around the world are banking on the premise that with the rapid decline of natural resources, GEOSS could become a major tool in the fight to sustain an exploding global population.
NOAA experts say they have only begun to assess the realm of possibilities of how the information provided by GEOSS can be used.
"It would apply to all sorts of efforts like finding energy, water, improving agricultural productivity, and understanding the connection between health and the environment. [It will give us] an enormous advance in our ability to help save lives, and revolutionize the way we deal with severe weather events today," Lautenbacher said.