Improved GPS technique yields better weather and hurricane forecasting

March 19, 2014 // By Jean-Pierre Joosting
GPS continues to evolve and the latest technique led by a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego stands to improve weather models and hurricane forecasting by detecting precise conditions in the atmosphere through a new GPS system aboard airplanes.

The first demonstration of the technique, detailed in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), is pushing the project's leaders toward a goal of broadly implementing the technology in the near future on commercial aircraft.

Current measurement systems that use GPS satellite signals as a source to probe the atmosphere rely on GPS receivers that are fixed to ground and can't measure over the ocean, or they rely on GPS receivers that are also on satellites that are expensive to launch and only occasionally measure in regions near storms. The new system, led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography geophysicist Jennifer Haase and her colleagues, captures detailed meteorological readings at different elevations at targeted areas of interest, such as over the Atlantic Ocean in regions where hurricanes might develop.

"This field campaign demonstrated the potential for creating an entirely new operational atmospheric observing system for precise moisture profiling from commercial aircraft," said Haase, an associate researcher with the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Physics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at Scripps. "Having dense, detailed information about the vertical moisture distribution close to the storms is an important advancement, so if you put this information into a weather model it will actually have an impact and improve the forecast."

"These are exciting results, especially given the complications involved in working from an airplane," says Eric DeWeaver, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which funded the research. "Satellite-based measurements are now regularly used for weather forecasting and have a big impact, but airplanes can go beyond satellites in making observations that are targeted right where you want them."

The GRL paper details a 2010 flight campaign aboard NSF aircraft and subsequent data analysis that demonstrated for the first time that atmospheric information could be captured by an airborne GPS device. The instrumentation, which the scientists labeled "GISMOS" (GNSS [Global Navigation Satellite System] Instrument System