UW testing new weather satellite

Glenn Farley reports

SEATTLE - It's a satellite that can measure the size of rain drops and snowflakes, and starting in November of 2015 the University of Washington's Department of Atmospheric Sciences and NASA will work together to calibrate the new Global Precipitation Measurement satellite as it flies over Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

The Satellite was launched in February of 2014. It is a flying weather radar station, that also includes a Microwave Imager that not only detects rain and snow, but can measure the volume of rain and snow in the clouds.

From November 2015, through February of 2016, the U.W. and NASA will work together to measure the accuracy of the GPM satellite by cross checking what the satellite sees while flying over the mountainous Olympic Peninsula of Washington against equipment on the ground and instrument equipped aircraft. A trailer based weather station is currently in the Cascade mountains undergoing its own tests. The trailer is one piece of equipment that will be moved to the Olympic Peninsula this fall. The project even has a name, Olympex.

"This is a great place to do it, because we've got oceans, got coast, we've got mountains, we've got deep valleys, ridges and we also have the Olympic snow field," said Professor Robert Houze, a U.W. research meteorologist and principal investigator for the Olympex project.

That means if the GPM satellite can be verified to measure in these tough conditions, it could easily and accurately measure what's happening in Western Europe or Western Canada or other similar climates. Validations are also expected over other parts of the world.

"What's unique about this satellite is its ability to detect snow from space," said Olympex project manager and U.W. research scientist Lynn McMurdie.

Already, the GPM is being used to measure snow storms blasting the northeastern United States. But Olympex will do more that measure the rate of snow fall. It is designed to measure snow pack. Currently, remote instruments and even manual readings are taken at four specific points in the Olympics, Houze says the GPM can evaluate the entire Olympic snow field. The satellite's microwave imager measures swaths of the Earth 562 miles wide, and would fly over the Olympics several times a day.

The satellite is also expected to enhance forecasting computer models. Right now the current coastal radar near Washington's Copalis Beach can see out about 100 miles due to the curvature of the Earth. The Satellite can measure rain from where it originates. Of particular concern to west coast states including Washington, are atmospheric rivers, also known as a "pineapple express. "

Just last week, an atmospheric river dumped enough rain over the Olympic peninsula to flood parts of the town of Brinnon.

The new satellite, is part of an international effort that includes Japan, and adds to a cluster of less sophisticated satellites deployed for years.

"This will be the first time we've really had a precipitation mapping over the whole Earth," said Houze. He adds that it will play an even bigger role in evaluating global climate change.


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