On Sept. 4, 1900, the U.S. Weather Bureau office in Galveston, Texas, learned of a major storm in Cuba. It was hard to predict where it might head next; they apparently thought it was likely to head northeast. It didn't. On the 8th, a hurricane leveled the city.
The Galveston Weather Bureau staff didn't have much choice but to guess. As we've seen with Sandy over the past few days, the path of a hurricane is hard to predict even with modern sensor technology and satellites. Without the data we now collect, almost as blind as Texans in 1900.
And now the bad news: Obsolescence and budget cuts may mean that we're about to lose some of those data-collecting satellites. From The New York Times:
The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the whole planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms around five days ahead.
All this week, forecasters have been relying on just such satellite observations for almost all of the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: explode against the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?
Experiments show that without this kind of satellite data, forecasters would have underestimated by half the massive snowfall that hit Washington in the 2010 blizzard nicknamed “Snowmageddon.”