NOAA satellites helped save 253 lives in 2013

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Satellite image courtesy of NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fleet of reliable but aging geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites did more than provide forecasters with vital data in predicting weather across the country in 2013. It saved lives.

The satellites helped rescue 253 people from potentially life-threatening scenarios last year by detecting distress signals from emergency beacons activated by downed pilots, stranded boaters and lost hikers in the United States and surrounding waters.

The NOAA satellites are part of the international search and rescue satellite-aided tracking system known as COSPAS-SARSAT, which is a network of satellites used to detect and locate distress signals from emergency beacons.

"Each life we save underscores the undeniable value of NOAA satellites," said Mary Kicza, assistant administrator of NOAA's Satellite and Information Service.

A NOAA-compiled map of SARSAT rescues in 2013 shows that the majority -- 139 -- were waterborne and often involved the Coast Guard. Another 80 involved events on land, and 30 involved aviation incidents. Highlights include:

  • Alaska had the most SARSAT rescues (101), followed by Florida with 56.
  • In Alaska, six passengers on a small plane were rescued after it crashed near mountainous terrain outside LeConte Bay.
  • Four crewmen were rescued in Broadus, Mont., after ejecting from a B-1 bomber before it crashed.
  • A boater was rescued off the coast of Kitty Hawk, N.C., after he sustained a head injury.

When a NOAA satellite detects an activated beacon, it homes in on the location and relays information to the U.S. Mission Control Center for SARSAT in Maryland. Information is then shared with either the Coast Guard for water rescues or the Air Force for land rescues.

Since 1982, the COSPAS-SARSAT system has been credited with supporting 35,000 rescues worldwide, 7,250 of which happened in the United States or surrounding waters.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jan 27, 2014 RayW

Just addressing this article, each life saved cost the US tax payer about $6 million (just in the satellite budget estimate from 2011) last year and as a few people focused on other things have stated outside of this article, that is a lot of money that could have been used for other 'stuff'.

But as many people forget, this article just talks about a relatively minor use of the system. Look at the weather reporting for everything from blizzards to hurricanes, and the Saturday picnic plans to what to wear to work that day. That is a lot of money and lives saved by being able to be prepared instead of being caught in the storm with the proverbial pants down.

Most weather is cyclic with modifying affects from causes ranging from the sun to cutting down a forest to cooking dinner. Although we have been collecting weather data for centuries, it has only been the last 60 years that the power of being able to look down at all the earth and see what is going on everywhere including in the middle of the biggest weather modifier, the ocean, has been there. And the level of information has been improving over the years.

Also, as many people forget, much of the research today may not be useful, but we are using research today that was done years ago but now is just beginning to make sense and we have the technology and abilities to do something with it. Knowledge is always ahead of application, and unless you think forward or have imagination, is just worthless at the moment to many people.

Not that the finding of emergency beacons is not important, especially to those who are saved by the technology, but too many people just look at the cost and the article title and jump to the wrong conclusion of the actual cost.

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