GPS to the Rescue
By: J. David Grossman, Executive Director, GPS Innovation Alliance May 28, 2019
Whether you’re checking to see if you should bring a rain jacket on a trip or if you need to buy more sunscreen on your way to the beach, most people would agree that weather forecasting systems are extremely important. With the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season on June 1st, these systems are more important than ever.
In the lead up to a possible storm and in the days that follow, Americans will turn to a variety of communications services for up-to-date weather information, including broadcast television and radio, mobile devices as well as cable and satellite-based pay-TV services. These services play a crucial role in disseminating information used for determining when to shelter in place and/or plan an evacuation.
What may be less apparent, is the role that the Global Positioning System (GPS) plays in helping meteorologists predict the track of a storm, its timing and expected intensity. Yes, that is right, the same satellite-based navigation service that enables turn-by-turn navigation is also helping to improve weather forecasting.
According to the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), the operator of GPS.gov, “By integrating GPS measurements into operational methods used by meteorologists, the atmosphere’s water content can be determined, improving the accuracy of weather forecasts.”
Let’s dig into this a little further.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) runs a system known as Next Generation Weather Radar or NEXRAD. This land-based system, which is critical to issuing timely severe storm and flood warnings, and local weather forecasts, requires GPS-based time synchronization to function. Similarly, the instruments attached to weather balloons that are dropped from aircraft into hurricanes are entirely dependent on GPS for accurate position and velocity measurements.
When it comes to disaster planning and response, GPS also serves a critical role. GPS enables the creation of maps of disaster areas for search and rescue operations, and for damage assessment. In fact, just this weekend, reports laid out a detailed account of how GPS data was used to help find a hiker who had gone missing in Hawaii. GPS has also been critical to relief efforts following hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis.
During these most difficult times, it is important to know that the highly accurate and reliable GPS satellites—orbiting 12,500 miles above the earth—will continue to do their part to help improve weather forecasting, aid in search and rescue and ultimately save lives.