Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
Sport fishing is an uncertain pastime. Some days the fish are biting; others, not. But for captains of charter fishing boats and recreational fishermen making the most of a day off from work, returning without a catch is more than just a disappointment—it can have a financial impact as well, from wasted gas to frustrated clients taking their business elsewhere. Thanks to an evolving commercial partnership, oceanic data gathered by NASA satellites is now helping take the guesswork out of finding fishing hotspots.
In 1997, NASA launched the first of more than 20 satellites that now comprise the Earth Observing System (EOS). EOS was designed to provide space-based measurements and imagery of Earth’s surface and atmosphere to help scientists understand climate change and humans’ role in it on a long-term, global scale. However, NASA soon realized that the EOS was making unique observations of weather and the ocean, as well.
In 2002, NASA established the Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center (SPoRT) at Marshall Space Flight Center to facilitate the use of real-time EOS measurements for short-term weather forecasting—the prediction of weather on a scale of hours, rather than days or weeks. SPoRT uses EOS and other satellite data to provide a suite of NASA products to address challenging forecast issues such as visibility reduction due to clouds and fog at night; the timing and location of severe weather; flood potential due to runoff from snow melt; and the prediction of cloud cover, temperature changes, and precipitation in coastal regions associated with sea breeze fronts. SPoRT repackages the satellite data into useful formats and shares it, along with other tools like forecast models, with government entities like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service, as well as private sector organizations like television’s The Weather Channel.
“We don’t just throw data over the fence,” says Dr. Gary Jedlovec, SPoRT’s principal investigator. “We work closely with these end users to understand what their forecast problems are and then match our data capabilities to their forecast problems.”
WorldWinds Inc., a private weather forecasting company based in Slidell, Louisiana, approached SPoRT in 2006 seeking use of the program’s oceanic data. WorldWinds has an extensive history of NASA partnership; it was originally a part of User Systems Enterprises Inc., developed from founder and former Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Walt McCandless’s Phase I and II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts with Stennis Space Center in the early 1990s. (McCandless used his SBIR research to help address the lack of atmospheric and meteorological data over the open ocean, using radar backscatter off the water to determine wind speeds.) WorldWinds was established from User Systems’ Stennis office in 2000. Beginning in 2003, the company conducted Phase I and II SBIR research on high-resolution, radar-based digital elevation models to determine accurate storm surge predictions.
WorldWinds, which gathers weather and oceanic information from multiple sources and packages it into publicly useable products, was impressed by SPoRT’s data capabilities related to sea surface temperature (SST) and chlorophyll, the light-absorbing, energy-producing material found in plants like tiny, oceanic phytoplankton. SPoRT had developed an algorithm that compensates for holes in SST data caused by cloud cover that interferes with satellite readings. WorldWinds was interested in utilizing SPoRT’s SST capacities and developing a similar cloud-hole compensating algorithm for chlorophyll data. The company entered into a cooperative agreement with SPoRT to produce the algorithm, which was recently completed.