Eyes in the Sky Aid Pilots Far from Shore


In the immediate aftermath of the Air France 447 crash in the deep ocean off the Northeast coast of Africa in June 2009, there was much concern that severe convective weather not visible to onboard weather radar might have been a key factor.

Though recovery of the flight recorders much later told a different story, wheels were in motion in the research community to develop better severe weather forecast products for strategic planning by pilots on oceanic flights. 

One of those efforts involved the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). With funding from NASA’s Applied Sciences Program, NCAR and several partners developed an 8-hour convective weather forecast based on fuzzy logic and cloud top and moisture level input from the two Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) that cover a large portion of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. 
NCAR has gone public with their “beta” site, which provides 8 hr. convective forecasts that are refreshed every three hours (the update rate for the GOES weather picture).

On the “convective diagnosis, oceanic” (CDO) plot shown below, the areas most conducive to convection, hence storms and turbulence, are noted in deep magenta (closest to the value of 1.0). Visitors to the site can then click on any of the eight hourly forecasts that follow, or play all of the pictures together in movie mode. Note that the convection potential colors are changed for the forecast plots (T+1 hr. – 8 hr.) so as to not be confused with the most recent real-time CDO measurement.

Results of the convective analyses and forecasts were verified by NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measurement Missions (TRMM), which carries a precipitation radar and can drill down into weather. Due to its low-earth orbit, TRMM takes many days to refresh its data for a particular region and is not a good fit for quick updates. GOES, on the other hand, is constantly staring at the same regions.

No word yet whether the FAA or other global providers of weather data will incorporate the strategic planning tool into their portfolios, though it’s a pretty good bet they will.

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