New Weather Satellite: To Fix, Smack It Smartly on the Side with Your Fist

Nor' easter cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

About a year ago, the National Weather Service (part of NOAA) announced it was sending up a satellite, to orbit the Earth, that would be the smartest, most advanced and most accurate weather-forecasting device ever. If it said it would start raining at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, then at 3 p.m. it would start raining. If it said the rain would stop at 5:30 p.m., then it would stop at 5:30 p.m.

At the time, I wrote a story about what it would be like to live in circumstances where we could know what the weather would be with that degree of accuracy. It might take some fun out of things, but in the end, knowing what was coming would be better than not knowing.

However, nothing seemed to change much in weather forecasting during the months that followed. As I have a friend at NOAA, Tim Marrin, who is the Observation Program Leader on Long Island, I called to find out if there was a holdup. He told me there wasn’t a holdup—they were testing it to make sure it would work properly. He expected they would release the satellite to do its work accurately predicting the weather sometime before November.

I don’t like to bother Mr. Marrin with phone calls, because he is kind enough to take my call when I try and also because he is a very busy fellow.

Three weeks ago, at the end of February, I became certain that the satellite must be in full operation when they accurately forecasted Nor’easter Otto with considerable precision.

But then, just a few days later, the service announced the imminent arrival of Nor’easter Quinn. It announced it over the weekend. It would snow like hell with high tides and high winds beginning at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, but it would all blow over by early Thursday morning. The storm was making its way through Kansas and Oklahoma and would soon turn Minnesota and Illinois upside down before roaring through.

“This is the same sort of bomb cyclone nor’easter we just went through,” a weatherman on the Weather Channel said. “We will suffer with it here in the Northeast, but it will come charging through much faster so it will be over just overnight.”

Good enough.

I began to follow it closely. Pictures from the Midwest showed telephone poles lying across main streets, cars stalled in five feet of water in Omaha. Now it was in Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, many stores here announced they would be closed the next day. Schools would close. People were urged to get ready to evacuate on a moment’s notice. I was in New York City on Monday and Tuesday. All anybody was talking about was the weather. I had plans to drive out to the Hamptons on Thursday morning. Would that have to be scrapped?

“The storm has shifted a little bit,” the weatherman said late Tuesday evening. “We now expect 8 to 10 inches in New York City. Nassau County will take the big hit, and out on the East End we should get five to eight inches.”

But there was a whole different story when we woke up Wednesday morning.

“Everything has changed,” we were told. “New York City is going to get between 15 and 24 inches of snow starting in a few hours. It should continue on until Thursday noon. It’s going to be brutal. Out on eastern Long Island, we expect 8 to 12 inches. Be sure you have food stocked up. Gas up your car this morning if the lines aren’t too long. There will be falling trees. There will be power outages.”

The Governor of Massachusetts declared an emergency on Wednesday morning as the storm rumbled closer. He said, “We are going to lose some homes.” The Nassau County Supervisor declared a state of emergency for the whole county north of the Long Island Expressway. The airports cancelled over a thousand flights.

And then, on Wednesday afternoon, a thick blizzard of snow blanketed Manhattan for about three hours. There was accumulation. It was sticking. We had dinner plans at a restaurant at 7 p.m. and it seemed like we should go anyway. It was only three blocks away and it would be wonderland walking to it. In fact we did go trudging out. During dinner, the snow stopped and sheets of rain appeared. Most of the snow melted. It was slush by 9 p.m. and, as the rain had stopped, we walked home.

Thursday morning, we drove out east. There was very little snow in the city, and by Great Neck it was just a dusting. Nassau County got no snow that I could see, and after that it was a sunny, lovely day. It was as if Quinn never happened.

Weather satellite
Weather satellite, Photo:

Although, I later learned, it tore out the beach at downtown Montauk, Quinn was pretty much a dud.

And why hadn’t we known? I called Marrin but couldn’t get through, the line rang busy and busy. So I sent him an email.

“Is the new satellite up and running?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

On that weekend, we learned that still a third nor’easter was coming. Be ready for it on Wednesday. But then on Monday it came and hit the East End hard. So it went.

Years ago, when I was a young man, the weather service was notoriously inaccurate. If this had been back then, I’d have not been concerned with anything until the big blizzard came for two hours on Wednesday afternoon. Not knowing how long it would last and knowing I planned to come out east the following morning, I’d have called a friend out east on Thursday morning when it was all over in the city and asked how the weather was. They’d have said it was a nice day, no problem, no snow. Have a nice trip out. And that would have been that.

But this is now. Here we are, hour by hour, going crazy with plans and fears—there was, you may recall, a tsunami warning issued at 11 a.m. one morning in February, with the fear of it ending at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, which we later learned was supposed to be a test but got confused. We made plans, cancelled them, kept referring to our phones, clicking on weather reports that showed what was coming in hour by hour, which you could push forward into the future for five hours or look back into the past for five hours and watch the rain and snow and winds scoot by.

I liked it better back then. Ignorance was bliss.

As for this current super duper satellite, well, what we need to do is fire off a rocket with one of our biggest and strongest astronauts onboard. He should pull up alongside this weather satellite as it sails through the heavens at a gazillion miles an hour, open his cockpit, climb out for a space walk, jump across to the satellite for a minute and then bang it smartly on the side with his fist.

Back in the old days, that usually fixed things.

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