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Aging satellite affects alerts

If the weather data is lost, storm warnings will be less precise.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published June 13, 2007


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MIAMI - An aging weather satellite crucial to accurate predictions on the intensity and path of hurricanes could fail at any moment, and plans to launch a replacement have been pushed back seven years to 2016.

In a letter obtained by the Associated Press, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's chief said the failure of the QuikScat satellite could bring more uncertainty to forecasts and widen the areas that are placed under hurricane watches and warnings.

If the satellite faltered, experts estimate that the accuracy of two-day forecasts could suffer by 10 percent and three-day forecasts by 16 percent, which could translate into miles of coastline and the difference between a city being evacuated or not.

"We would go blind. It would be significantly hazardous, " said Wayne Sallade, emergency manager in Charlotte County, which was hit hard by Hurricane Charley in 2004.

In the letter to a Florida congressman, NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher blamed the delays on technical and budget problems. Scientists said if QuikScat failed, they may have to rely on less accurate satellites.

Last year, forecasts were off an average of 111 miles two days in advance, a figure that has been cut in half over the past 15 years. But experts said that could grow 10 percent to 122 miles if the satellite is lost.

QuikScat, launched in 1999 and designed to last two to three years, provides key data on wind speed and direction over the ocean. Weather aircraft and buoys can also obtain similar measurements near a storm, but they do not provide a constant flow of data as QuikScat does.

Last year, the satellite suffered a major setback - the failure of a transmitter used to send data to Earth about every 90 minutes. Now the satellite is limping along on a backup transmitter and has other problems.

The backup transmitter could last years, but there are no guarantees and no warnings when it is about to fail, said Robert Gaston, who works with the satellite at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Lautenbacher's letter was sent to Rep. Ron Klein, who requested the agency's plan.

[Last modified June 13, 2007, 00:38:24]


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