Last Updated: 02/07/2013*

As the surf smashed against the piers of Brooklyn and rain pounded the apple groves of New Jersey, weather forecasters turned to a powerful new eye in the sky to track the devastation of Hurricane Sandy last fall.

The VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite) sensor suite, orbiting 512 miles above the roiling storm aboard the Suomi NPP satellite, poured down data like nothing scientists had ever seen. Crisp imagery revealed the storm’s minute twists and turns. Stunning night-vision portraits of the storm pinpointed blackout locations for emergency crews.

It was a technological leap that went far beyond weather forecasting, said William Straka, an associate researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) at the University of Wisconsin.

“This technology is not only vital to scientists, but to the public at large,” Straka said in an interview.

VIIRS image of Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast of the United States as viewed by VIIRS while looking down from above Canada. Image courtesy of NASA.

VIIRS stands for Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. In orbit since October 2011, its sensors give the Suomi NPP satellite “super vision” in 22 different bands, from ultraviolet rays to visible light and infrared.

Working in conjunction with the Raytheon-built JPSS Common Ground System, the system processes and delivers massive volumes of environmental data to weather centers across the United States.

“Bride of Frankenstorm”

Hurricane Sandy mixed with a cold front to produce one of the most complex and devastating storms ever to hit the United States, described by NASA as a “Bride of Frankenstorm.”

Because of the unprecedented size and unusual path, the impact could have been much worse without weather data to help meteorologists make predictions about where and when the storm would hit land.

VIIRS image of Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy captured in infrared by the VIIRS sensor approaching the eastern coast of Florida. Image courtesy of NASA.

During Sandy, satellite data enabled meteorologists to forecast the path and intensity of the storm with new accuracy, giving local communities up to five days to prepare for its impact.

That feat was even more remarkable due to Sandy’s unusual path and sharp turn west as it merged with another storm.

"The better the resolution of the satellite data, the better the inputs to your models are. That can lead to better forecasts, which can save lives and money,” Straka said.

In the absence of such satellite data, meteorologists run the risk of underestimating the severity of a storm.

Night Vision

Until recently, visible imagery of Earth’s weather patterns was largely limited to daylight hours. Previous nighttime imagery was low-resolution, reducing forecasters’ ability to visually track emerging conditions.

VIIRS image of Hurricane Sandy
An overnight view of Hurricane Sandy over Florida, taken by the VIIRS sensor at 2:42 a.m. EST on October 28, 2012. Image courtesy of NASA.

VIIRS solves that problem with a highly advanced, day-night band sensor system. It delivers four times better resolution and 250 times greater dynamic range than earlier satellite-based, low-light imagers.

“The VIIRS nighttime imagery was provided to disaster relief agencies and allowed emergency teams to expedite their response to hurricane-ravaged areas...a huge help to relief organizations trying to measure the scope of impact,” Gary Jedlovec, a NASA project lead, said during a panel discussion at the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) annual meeting in January.

VIIRS image of Hurricane Sandy
Nighttime view of New Jersey, New York, and eastern Pennsylvania by the VIIRS sensor at 2:14 a.m. EST on November 1, 2012. Lingering clouds from Hurricane Sandy are lit by moonlight and partially obscure the city lights below. Image courtesy of NASA.

A Different Perspective

VIIRS is especially valuable to forecasters because the Suomi NPP satellite circles the globe constantly, unlike geostationary satellites that stay over the same part of Earth.

Its orbit travels over the north and south poles, giving forecasters valuable data about areas that other satellites can’t see.

And its higher resolution and more accurate measurements give weather forecaster more tools than they’ve ever had before, Steve Miller, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, told the audience during the AMS annual meeting.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of what we believe we can do with this technology,” Miller said.



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