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Modern Meteorology Was Born 60 Years Ago Today

“Sixty years ago on this date, April 1, a Thor-Able rocket launched a small satellite weighing 122.5kg into an orbit about 650km above the Earth’s surface,” writes Ars Technica’s Eric Berger. “Effectively, this launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station marked the beginning of the era of modern weather forecasting.” From the report: Designed by the Radio Corporation of America and put into space by NASA, the Television InfraRed Observation Satellite, or TIROS-1, was the nation’s first weather satellite. During its 78 days of operation, TIROS-1 successfully monitored Earth’s cloud cover and weather patterns from space. This was a potent moment for the field of meteorology. For the first time, scientists were able to combine space-based observations with physical models of the atmosphere that were just beginning to be run on supercomputers.

After World War II, mathematician John von Neumann led development of a computer to crunch through a set of equations put together by Jule Charney and other scientists. By the mid-1950s, Charney’s group began to produce numerical forecasts on a regular basis. All of a sudden, meteorologists had two incredibly useful tools at their hands. Of course, it would take time for more powerful computers to produce higher-resolution forecasts, and the sensor technology launched on satellites would require decades to improve to the point where spacecraft could collect data for temperature, moisture, and other environmental variables at various levels in the atmosphere. But by around 1980, the tools of satellite observations and numerical models that could process that data started to mature. Scientists had global satellite coverage, 24 hours a day, and forecasts began to improve dramatically. Today, the fifth day of a five-day forecast on the app on your phone is about as accurate as the next day’s forecast was in 1980.

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