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Predicting A Hurricane's Intensity May Have Gotten Easier

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today marks the official start of Atlantic hurricane season. And this time around, weather researchers will try out a new tool they hope will help them forecast just a little bit better. Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive tells us how it works.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Last October, Hurricane Matthew killed more than 40 people in the U.S. and more than 500 others in the Caribbean.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is Matthew. It's big. Pray for us.

FLAHIVE: Matthew also showed the glaring limitations in forecasting the strength of hurricanes. In 24 hours, Matthew doubled in strength, reaching Category 5 status with winds of 166 miles per hour, catching forecasters completely off guard.

CHRIS RUF: It had went through a rapid intensification phase that was completely missed by the forecasts.

FLAHIVE: University of Michigan atmospheric science professor Chris Ruf says while hurricane forecasters have gotten really good at predicting the path of storms, forecasting intensity is much more difficult.

RUF: A lot of computer simulations have shown that the lack of ability to measure the center of the storm and to measure them often enough are the primary reasons why our forecast skill is limited.

FLAHIVE: Ruf is in charge of a new system he hopes will help. It's called the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System or CYGNSS for short.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: SC PLT, PLT confirmed go for launch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Drop on my mark. Three, two, one - drop.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Go for release.

FLAHIVE: Last December, NASA launched eight satellites from a Pegasus rocket which are now monitoring the earth's tropics. Current weather satellites can't see through the heaviest rains of a tropical cyclone, but these new ones can. And because the satellites are small and inexpensive, they can put many more in the sky, increasing the frequency of passes.

Under this new system, researchers hope they can get a view of a storm every 12 minutes. According to their simulations, if CYGNSS had been up in the sky during Matthew last year, forecasters would have seen that rapid intensification.

RUF: So that would have been an example of something that would have been caught had we had CYGNSS up there.

FLAHIVE: Before CYGNSS, the only way to pinpoint wind speed from the center of a tropical cyclone was if the storm passed directly over a weather buoy or to fly a hurricane hunter plane inside it. Researchers say CYGNSS could be a game-changer because the amount of quality data it will provide. Ryan Maue's a meteorologist for WeatherBELL Analytics. He says there's real excitement among meteorologists.

RYAN MAUE: So now we're going to have another piece of information that's going to be available in real time, and we'll be able to provide a much better indication of that hurricane's intensity throughout its entire life cycle wherever it is in the tropics.

FLAHIVE: If all goes well with forecasts in coming hurricane seasons, NASA hopes to launch more of these satellites to better pinpoint and predict storms. For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.