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NASA-funded system protects fliers from ocean storms

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A new prototype system aims to keep remote flights safe and assist pilots in avoiding major storms.

Funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a new prototype has been developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) of Boulder, Colorado. The forecast system combines satellite data and computer weather models to produce maps of storms over the world's oceans, predicting weather events for up to eight hours at a time.

Designed for those dealing with transoceanic flights, from pilots to air traffic controllers, any risks to the flight -- including turbulence and lightning -- will be relayed to each party, allowing preventative action to be taken where possible.

The forecasts are updated every three hours.

The weather forecasts currently track storm patterns over the continental United States and most of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Funded as part of NASA's Applied Sciences Program, the need for such technology was pushed further after the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which ran into a number of thunderstorms when cruising across the Atlantic Ocean.

NCAR collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Lincoln Laboratory, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create the weather forecast system. In order to predict stormy weather, geostationary satellite measurements keep an eye on two main conditions: particularly high cloud tops and water vapor at high altitudes, the potential signs of powerful storms.

"These new forecasts can help fill an important gap in our aviation system," said NCAR's Cathy Kessinger, lead project researcher. "Pilots have had limited information about atmospheric conditions as they fly over the ocean, where conditions can be severe. By providing them with a picture of where significant storms will be during an eight-hour period, the system can contribute to both the safety and comfort of passengers on flights."

Pilots of transoceanic flights currently get preflight briefings and sometimes receive weather updates in four-hour increments when storms are particularly brutal. However, when it comes down to planning a flight, accidents in aviation may be prevented by improving current weather-tracking systems.

As pinpointing risky areas across oceans is made more difficult due to cloud cover and the often rapid development of storms, pilots often have to choose detours or flying directly into areas with such conditions -- which may contain windshear, icy conditions, lightning and hail.

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— By on December 11, 2012, 9:42 PM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure