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The Satellite Eyes On Irene (And Other Great Resources)

There are satellites orbiting overhead, powerful computers and plenty of scientists to make sense of a wealth of data

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In this GOES satellite image taken on August 24, the eye Hurricane Irene, traveling over the Bahamas, can be clearly seen (Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project)

Not that long ago, people got little to no warning about hurricanes. They couldn’t know when the winds would kick up, when the surge of water would arrive, what kind of destruction a storm might bring. But now we have satellites orbiting overhead, powerful computers that can forecast a track days in advance and plenty of scientists to make sense of a wealth of data. We may not be invulnerable, but we can, at least, limit the amount of destruction and loss of life. (If anyone asks, “what good is science?” here’s a great example.)

And because this is mostly government-funded science, the public gets plenty of access to information and tools to help us better understand hurricanes and prepare for them.

“Understanding the history of hurricane landfalls in your community is an important step toward assessing your vulnerability to these potentially devastating storms,” says Ethan Gibney, a senior geospatial analyst for NOAA. He’s one of the developers of NOAA’s Historical Hurricane Tracks online mapping application. Users can map the tracks of storms around the world and get detailed information about tropical cyclones going back to 1842.

Information about Irene (as well as Tropical Depression 10, brewing in the Atlantic) is available from the National Hurricane Center. Most of us will be satisfied with the array of maps, advisories, podcasts and videos produced by the center, but even more detailed analysis tools are also available to those who are interested and understand it.

NASA monitors storms from above the Earth and publishes the best of its imagery online. Instruments on the GOES and Terra satellites provide great visible images along with temperature (of both air and sea surface), pressure, wind and cloud data. The TRMM satellite, meanwhile, measures the hurricane’s rainfall and gives insight into the storm’s structure.

And anyone who lives near Irene’s projected path should consult FEMA’s hurricane site and learn what they should do to prepare.

Check out the entire collection of Surprising Science’s Pictures of the Week and get more science news from Smithsonian on our Facebook page. And apologies for the East-Coast-centric coverage the last few days; we’ll go back to regular science blogging once the Smithsonian office is no longer plagued by natural disasters. Good luck to all who sit in Irene’s path.

(Tip ‘o the hat to Bad Astronomy for the photo)
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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