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When borders drift

On the ground and in space, technology helps track shifting Arctic ice

The USS Hartford (SSN-768) surfaces near Ice Camp Sargo during exercises on March 15, 2016. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Whether geographic or political, borders don't often move.

Except in the Arctic Circle, where receding ice can leave land suddenly surrounded by ocean. Tracking changes in the ice can be a challenge; extreme cold and long days of darkness ensure there are few eyes on the ground. So ships braving arctic waters rely on tech tools, both on Earth and in orbit, to help predict ice movements.

One such tool is the Raytheon-developed Joint Polar Satellite System Common Ground System, which processes more than 11 terabytes of data a day from orbiting satellites. International agencies rely on that information to help build regional weather models, track environmental aerosols and map polar ice movements. The insight it provides could prevent a ship from being stuck for hours, or military vessels crossing the wrong paths and inadvertently creating a frozen conflict zone.

“What a forecaster tracking ice movements in the arctic and a forecaster in South America tracking atmospheric dispersion of forest fire ashes have in common is a need for more accurate data, faster and more often,” said Shawn Cochran, Raytheon JPSS CGS mission data services lead. “Having that much data available faster [means] more accurate models to help predict weather, ranging from snow storms to heat waves.”

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite of sensors on the Suomi NPP satellite captured this image of the Northwest Passage on August 9, 2016. (NOAA/NASA Photo)

Over the mountain, through the snow

The atmospheric winds that make up the jet stream have a direct impact on weather around the world. Due to the colder temperatures in the Arctic, the winds flowing from east to west are more pronounced, causing more extreme weather.

Another of Raytheon’s technologies that is being used to help make observations in the arctic is the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite of sensors. VIIRS sensors will make observations from aboard the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's JPSS-1 satellite, scheduled for launch in September, and are already operational onboard the orbiting Suomi NPP satellite.

The data collected from Suomi NPP and JPSS-1 as they orbit the Earth 28 times a day will improve overall observation, helping researchers track ice movements and global weather patterns. They may help better predict the paths of hurricanes as well.

The computer connection

Forecasters rely on high-performance computers to string data together and help extract meaning. Once the information is downlinked and processed, they use visualization tools such as the Raytheon-developed Advanced Weather Interactive Processing system to bring the bigger picture into focus.

“[High-performance computing] can be used to build better weather models, using real-world data collected over time to speed up calculations and predict what impact weather will have on people’s lives,” said Craig Stair, chief engineer for Raytheon HPC. “The challenge facing forecasters around the globe is verifying the models that super computers are turning out daily. As computers and tools improve, so will the accuracy of weather models.”

Last Updated: 04/06/2017

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