The eye of Hurricane Wilma, a menacing Category 4 storm, approaches the northeastern tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in this October 21 image from NASA's QuikScat satellite, depicting relative wind speeds and direction. The storm is projected to make landfall in south Florida on Monday.
Ground measurements of the wind strength of Hurricane Wilma show sustained winds somewhat higher than those shown by QuikScat observations. This is because the power of the storm makes accurate measurements difficult. The scatterometer sends pulses of microwave energy through the atmosphere to the ocean surface, and measures the energy that bounces back from the wind-roughened surface. The energy of the microwave pulses changes depending on wind speed and direction, giving scientists a way to monitor wind around the world.
Tropical cyclones (the generic term for hurricanes and typhoons), however, are difficult to measure. To relate the radar energy return to actual wind speed, scientists compare measurements taken from buoys and other ground stations to data the satellite acquired at the same time and place. Because the high wind speeds generated by cyclones are rare, scientists do not have corresponding ground information to know how to translate data from the satellite for wind speeds above 50 knots (about 93 km/hr or 58 mph). Also, the unusually heavy rain found in a cyclone distorts the microwave pulses in a number of ways, making a conversion to accurate wind speed difficult. Instead, the scatterometer provides a nice picture of the relative wind speeds within the storm and shows wind direction.
For more information about the storm, please visit the National Hurricane Center.
NASA's Quick Scatterometer (QuikScat) spacecraft was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on June 19, 1999. QuikScat carriesthe SeaWinds scatterometer, a specialized microwave radar that measures near-surface wind speed and direction under all weather and cloud conditions over the Earth's oceans. More information about the QuikScat mission and observations is available at http://winds.jpl.nasa.gov. QuikScat is managed for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, DC, by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. JPL also built the SeaWinds radar instrument and is providing ground science processing systems. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, managed development of the satellite, designed and built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, CO. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has contributed support to ground systems processing and related activities.