Unmanned aircraft to assist in forecasts

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2007

FAIRBANKS - It's hard to predict the weather in Alaska. Yet storms, winds and other pressure zones across the state and the surrounding ocean play a key role in determining weather conditions across the country and the rest of the world. In addition, the weather in Alaska is changing rapidly in response to global warming, causing dangerous coastal erosion, flooding of rivers and the disruption of subsistence hunting.

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In an effort to better forecast the weather and respond to the changing climate in Alaska, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to acquire three unmanned aircraft and use them to gather data from areas of the state and the Arctic Ocean where forecasters haven't been able to gather data before.

"It's a major step forward beyond what we're now capable of doing," said Marty Ralph, the manager for NOAA's unmanned aircraft project, during a gathering in Fairbanks on Tuesday.

During the next seven years or so, NOAA plans to spend $80 million figuring out the best way to use the remote-control planes across the country, focusing on the Arctic, the Pacific Ocean and the inside of hurricanes.

Laura Furgione, the director of the National Weather Service's Alaska Region office, said she's excited about the prospects of using the aircraft to create better weather models for the state.

"Alaska has the second-worst weather models in the world, right behind Antarctica," she said, noting that a weather forecast is only as good as the weather model it's based on. "There are several areas across Alaska where you're trying to forecast without any data."

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