February 6, 2023

NOAA satellites, which are critical to weather and climate forecasts, helped rescue 397 people in the United States and surrounding waters from potentially life-threatening situations in 2022.

A still from video of a Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans MH-60 Jayhawk flight crew rescuing a boater from a capsized vessel near Slidell, Louisiana on September 18, 2022 near the marina. (US Coast Guard)

NOAA’s polar orbiting and geostationary satellites are part of the global Search and rescue, satellite positioning system or COSPAS SARSATwhich uses a network of U.S. and international spacecraft to detect and locate distress signals broadcast by aircraft, boat, and handheld distress signals Personal locator beacons (PLBs) anywhere in the world.

Of the 397 US rescues last year, 275 were water rescues, 42 from downed planes and 80 were on land using PLBs. Florida had the most SARSAT rescues at 106, followed by Alaska at 56 and Utah at 20.

Since its launch in 1982, COSPAS-SARSAT has been credited with assisting more than 50,000 rescue operations worldwide, including more than 10,100 in the United States and surrounding waters.

When a NOAA satellite pinpoints the location of a distress beacon in the United States, the information is relayed to the SARSAT Mission Control Center at NOAA satellite operations facility in Suitland, Maryland. From there, the information is quickly sent to emergency dispatch centresoperated by either the US Air Force for land rescues, or the US Coast Guard for water rescues. NOAA also supports rescue operations worldwide by relaying distress signal information to international SARSAT partners.

Here’s a look at three of the most notable events from 2022:

  • On June 10, a group of 17 hikers were rescued after being stranded on a ridge in Utah’s Sandthrax Canyon. The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center received the alert from a PLB and notified the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, which launched a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter to the coordinates of where the distressed hikers were located.
  • On November 20, seven people were rescued from an airliner after an engine failure forced it to land on a frozen lake near Bethel, Alaska. The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, which received the coordinates of the downed plane, alerted another aircraft company that performed the rescue.
  • On August 5, a US Coast Guard helicopter rescued a sailor from his capsized boat off the coast of New Smyrna Beach, Florida. The sailor grabbed the life raft and activated its beacon before his boat sank.

By law, Beacon owners are required to register their devices online with NOAA. Registration information helps to better and faster help people in need, reduces false positives and can also indicate what kind of help is needed.

The value of NOAA satellites goes well beyond predictions,” said Steve Volz, Ph.D., Assistant Administrator, NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service. “SARSAT’s life-saving capability is a credit to teamwork with the US Coast Guard, US Air Force NASA and our international partners. In keeping with its mission, the SARSAT program truly takes “search” out of search and rescue.”

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