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A Million-Dollar Eye In The Sky

Iraqi boys are seen through shattered glass in Baghdad's Sadr City, Iraq, Friday, Dec. 22, 2006, after a U.S. and Iraqi army raid on the neighborhood. The joint forces raid resulted in two suspects being detained and four people being wounded, including two children, police said.
AP Photo/Karim Kadim
From the parched plains of Texas to the burning Rockies of the West, the drought of the summer of 2000 is taking its toll.

In Montana, more evacuations were ordered as another fire chased hundreds from their homes in Red Lodge. In Texas, Dallas area ranchers are struggling through their the 60th straight day without a single drop of rain.

It is a weather disaster impossible to prevent - but possible to predict, reports CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan. The predictions are made, not from the ground, but from the air.

On September 20th, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, NASA plans to launch the second of five new super satellites into orbit - a satellite whose predecessor has already helped uncover a bit of good weather news.

"There is a transition going on right now," says John Jones of the National Weather Service.

It's happening in the Pacific. After two long two years, the La Nina weather pattern - cold water that pushes the cooler, moister air further north - is weakening fast.

"It's going to take several months before this transition really effects the continental US," Jones says, but when it does, Americans will be prepared.

The NOAA-L, as the satellite is called, will track La Nina's demise. Designed to fly lower - with better resolution - the $270 million eye in the sky will improve long range forecasts - by helping to predict global trends.

But it can also detect how healthy crops are - where migratory birds are flying - when a forest fire starts - even help search-and-rescue crews locate people in trouble.

If there is a global change in the weather on the horizon - the NOAA-L will see it first.

After two years of this drought in the South - and a summer of wildfires in the West - almost any change would be welcome.

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  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.