The Caribbean islands suffered a brutal one-two-three punch in late summer of 2017. In just over a month, three major hurricanes—Harvey, Irma and Maria—blasted the islands, leaving a path of rubble, downed trees and broken infrastructure. The destruction was especially severe in Puerto Rico where Hurricane Maria wiped out electricity across the entire commonwealth.
With each of the approaching storms, forecasters were able to use weather data from space to predict the hurricane’s path and wind strength, and how much rain would fall and where. This information helped residents and communities prepare for the storms and for emergency responders to deploy resources and be ready for rescue efforts.
Tim Schmit played a big role in the satellite technology that assists regions before, during and even after major weather events. As a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Schmit has spent his 22-year career developing faster and better satellite technology for detecting and monitoring severe weather, including a number of major improvements in the past few years.
Equally important, he has taught forecasters with the National Weather Service and TV weather teams how to interpret the data so the public can get accurate warnings sooner regarding potential disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods and forest fires.
“Tim’s efforts have helped save countless lives and billions of dollars across the Western Hemisphere,” said Satya Kalluri, a supervisor with NOAA’s satellite program.
Schmit’s work to make the government’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites increasingly sophisticated and effective has revolutionized weather forecasting both in the U.S. and internationally. As part of a joint effort between NASA and NOAA, geostationary satellites orbit the earth at the same speed as the earth rotates, so the satellite stays in the same spot above the planet.
Schmit focused on advancing the imaging technology of the satellites, primarily through the development of the Advanced Baseline Imager. This technology provides higher-resolution images significantly faster than previous instruments.
“Tim’s recommendations for the Advanced Baseline Imager helped make it 100 times better than its predecessor,” Kalluri said.
“Satellite imagery provides the most important data that weather forecasters use every day to inform and warn the public of severe weather,” said Harry Cikanek, director of NOAA’s satellite program. “Tim makes sure that data is high quality and interpretable.”
Schmit figured out how to collect data more efficiently and from larger areas, and how to make it more useful. “We can squeeze out a lot more information from these satellites thanks to Tim’s vision and perseverance,” said Steven Goodman, chief scientist with NOAA’s satellite program.
Schmit’s work also expanded the number of spectral bands (frequencies that collect different light) that are used. The first geostationary weather satellite launched in 1966 had one visible band that gathered information only during the daytime. Instruments on subsequent satellites had increasingly more bands (now 16) that collect both visible and infrared light. Satellites can now detect everything from clouds at night to water vapor, fog, atmospheric winds, hot spots such as fires, and vegetation or the lack of it.
“We can see where a fire has burned vegetation,” Schmit said. “That’s important for predicting possible flash flooding. We’re always improving and adding more analytical spectral bands.” The improved satellite data also has helped monitor volcanic eruptions and solar disturbances.
After Hurricane Maria destroyed the lone radar on Puerto Rico, the satellite monitored the island every minute with a new image. While this didn’t replace the need for local radar, it helped fill in some of the missing information and was used in warnings for flash floods.
The satellite imaging technology also allows forecasters to monitor the evolution of potentially dangerous thunderstorms on a minute-by-minute basis without interruption, according to Russell Schneider, director of NOAA’s National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center. These “movies of the evolution of clouds and weather systems from space were made possible by Tim Schmit’s work,” he said.
In addition to saving lives and protecting property, Schmit’s efforts have economic benefits for aviation and shipping industries where it’s important to know storm and weather details in real time so companies can change routes and avoid delays.
While improving imaging technology and analyzing the data accurately and quickly has been central to Schmit’s efforts, “he does something that other scientists rarely do—he goes out and teaches the users how to interpret and use the data,” Kalluri said.
“Tim is everywhere, doing the science and training. He really wants to see the user community get the most out of this new technology,” Goodman said. “He’s the most knowledgeable government scientist working with the data, so everyone relies on Tim.”