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Satellites spy Cajun catastrophe

Speed read
  • Unprecedented weather event drops 7 trillion gallons of water on Louisiana.
  • Collection of international satellites coordinate to peer inside historic storm.
  • Global Precipitation Measurement observatory launched to aid understanding of freshwater cycle.

Twenty chickens in a canoe. Seven caskets tethered to a stop sign.

These aren’t scenes from Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County nor are they surreal images from Bosch or Bruegel. No, these are snapshots from Louisiana in August 2016.

Cajun catastrophe. Using data from the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellites, NASA visualizes the deluge unleashed on Lousiana in August 2016. The unnamed storm dropped nearly 7 trillion gallons of water in about a week. Courtesy NASA Scientific Visualization Studio.

About a month ago, while the rest of us were watching Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt dominate the Rio Olympic games, a once in a 1,000 year weather event visited Louisiana. Rainfall and flooding overwhelmed the region, stretching human resilience and the state’s infrastructure to their limits.

The waters may have receded, but the trouble for residents is far from over. Now, with the aid of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), we can visualize just how astounding the event really was.

Painting by numbers

Numbers tell part of the story. About 7 trillion gallons of rain fell between August 12-22, enough to fill over 10 million Olympic swimming pools. Watson parish reported 31.39 inches on August 16 alone. In total, nearly three times as much water fell in those ten days than was recorded during Hurricane Katrina, the third worst storm in US history.

<strong> Southern soak. </strong> Ten days of rain in Louisiana dropped more water than Hurricane Katrina, displacing tens of thousands of residents. NASA visualization peers inside the historic storm. Courtesy Melissa Leake; US Department of State (IIP) <a href= 'https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode'>(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) </a>

The unnamed storm damaged 146,000 homes and killed 13 people. Evacuations affected 30,000 residents, while rescues aided 20,000 people (and 1,000 pets). Property damages top $30 million.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story, however. Pictures of submerged highways or goats in boats help provide a sense of the disruption felt in Louisiana. But leave it to NASA to provide the definitive scientific assessment of the weather event of the millennium.

Global Precipitation Measurement

Launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2014, the GPM core observatory coordinates international satellite data to record worldwide precipitation every three hours.

GPM boosts our comprehension of the freshwater cycle on our planet. This knowledge has far reaching impact, touching on scientific domains from agriculture to climate science to extreme weather prediction.

<strong> Eyes in the skies.</strong> The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) is an international coordination of satellites. Microwave and radar instruments give scientists precise readings of storm interiors. Courtesy NASA, JAXA.

Flying 250 miles above the Earth’s surface, GPM carries a microwave imager that constantly scans a 562-mile-wide region. GPM’s 13 microwave channels spot energy from different kinds of precipitation.

GPM also houses a dual frequency precipitation radar to create reliable estimates of precipitation rates and a 3D view of rainfall. Respectively, the two frequencies scan a 75- and 158-mile-wide swath, and inform scientists about the size of precipitation particles within a cloud.

This video by NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio treats us to a reconstruction of Louisiana’s August rain event. First, we see August 11-13 from a wide national view, and then slowly zoom in to see an interior view of the stalled storm and the massive rainfall recorded.

Altogether, this visualization uses data from GPM, the Climate Prediction Center, and Integrated Multi-satellitE Retrievals for GPM (IMERG).

To grasp what occurred in an event like Louisiana’s historic floods calls for the best that science can muster. Pictures of bobbing caskets, paddling poultry, and submerged streets convey a visceral sense of how vulnerable we remain to natural events.

This latest visualization from NASA not only tells us how it happened, but can also help us prepare for the next unprecedented weather catastrophe.

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