Lessons from Harvey and Irma

The storm losses in Texas and Florida could have been even worse were it not for the many talented and energetic young people who decided years ago to pursue careers in aerospace and the associated sciences, such as weather forecasting.

The accurate forecasts and fast relief efforts were set up by the difficult lessons of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and also by years of technical innovation and budget fights over how to spend federal dollars. There were the Hurricane Hunter planes and NOAA weather satellites that fed the forecast models; the overhead images of the storm aftermath that reassured some evacuees and broke the hearts of others. There were the algorithms, software and communications networks that tied the information together and shared it.

In light of all this, the aerospace industry should not need to gussy itself up to continue attracting the best and brightest. In our high schools and universities at this very moment, I would bet that young people have come away energized about the professionals they saw in action. They will cut through the policy controversy about climate change that has paralyzed my generation. They will reshape the aerospace industry in ways that none of us can predict.

Those well into their careers, like me, will need to be open-minded about the coming changes. Someone who needs to forecast a hurricane’s path, or calculate what it will take to calm our amped-up atmosphere, doesn’t care whether the data comes from an agency, a startup or a giant corporation. The information needs to be accurate and the supply of it can’t vanish with the whims of the business cycle or budgets on Capitol Hill. Other than that, the sky is open.

As with any human calamity, there will be lessons from Harvey and Irma. One of them has to do with the power of math. Algorithms, it turns out, can be tools for good or ill. They are the foundation of the forecasting models that warned of Harvey’s epic rainfall and nailed the track and intensity of Irma.

But automated versions of algorithms also reportedly drove up the prices of airline tickets for evacuees who had no other way to get out of harm’s way. When the next emergency comes, it won’t do to say the prices were the fault of an algorithm.

A better world lies ahead, so long as the humans stay in charge of the technology.

Editor’s note: In the photo at the top of this page, Hurricane Irma approaches the Florida Keys on Sept. 10 in this test image from the Advanced Baseline Imager on NOAA’s GOES-16, the first of a next generation series of weather satellites.

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Weather satellites

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Lessons from Harvey and Irma