We can all agree that advances in satellite and computer technology led to improved hurricane forecasting during the last half of the 20th century. Satellites now offer a global view of weather systems, and high-speed computers allow forecasters to quickly crunch data into useful weather models. The advances have proven to be a benefit to weather experts, as well as the public.  With the advent of weather satellites, there are no more “surprise” hurricanes, since the entire globe is now being continuously monitored.  Before satellites, there could have very well been a hurricane over the open waters and no one knew about it.  Before satellites, forecasters had to rely on random ship reports and reports from aircraft (imagine things before flight)!

Weather watchers expanded their view of hurricanes in 1960. The first weather satellite, TIROS (Television Infrared Observation Satellite) launched from Cape Canaveral on April 1 of that year.

Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates a complete global weather monitoring system from the sky. The agency uses three types of satellites to watch weather systems, including tropical cyclones, move across the globe. Geostationary operational environmental satellites (GOES) are used for national, regional, short-range warning and "now-casting," while polar-orbiting environmental satellites (POES) are used for global, long-term and environmental basis.

In 2000, NOAA launched its latest GOES generation. It offers better images, improving the resolution from 4 kilometers to 1 kilometer.

The satellites don't just collect images. They also collect millions of bits of data that are sent to computers operated by NOAA. Those computers couple the satellite data with that received from Hurricane Hunter planes, and turn it into numerical weather models. Meteorologists then read and use the models to create weather predictions, as well as hurricane forecasts.

Forecasters use three types of models to map a hurricane's next move. Statistical models try to relate the hurricanes' motion to experience with past storms, while dynamical models address atmospheric changes. Statistical-dynamical models use a combination of the latter two, comparing current conditions with characteristics of past storms.

Since data for models comes in at a fast rate, fast computers are a must. That's why NOAA has devoted resources to high-tech supercomputers. Its latest computer is said to be able to process weather data at a rate of 2.5 trillion instructions per second, once it is running at peak capacity. That's 28 times faster than the computer it replaced!

The speed and far reach of today's weather information systems is making a difference when it comes to hurricane forecasting. Over the past 20 years, errors in official forecasts have decreased about one percent per year on average. NOAA attributes the bulk of that reduction to improved forecast models.