A Sharper Eye in the Sky Means Better U.S. Storm Forecasts Ahead

  • Forecasters are already looking forward to improvements
  • GOES-R represents NOAA’s latest effort to track weather

For forecasters trying to better pinpoint the havoc of storms, the future begins next year.

That’s when the test phase for the new GOES-R satellite should be complete, providing the National Weather Service with an improved tool to track lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes.

GOES-R satellite

Source: Lockheed Martin via NOAA

The current combination of human meteorologists and computer forecast models often means “educated guesses based on the data to derive what the impact might be,” said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “This satellite is going to take them from less of an art and more of a science.”

GOES, or Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, is the latest generation National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spacecraft. The first of four will be launched from Florida in October. They will bring a much finer resolution to what forecasters can see, as well as a lightning mapper, said Steve Goodman, senior NOAA scientist for the GOES-R program, in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Hurricane Strength

These two improvements could help pinpoint a hurricane’s intensity, as well as its exact location, said Mike Brennan, a senior specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The higher resolution also lets forecasters study the eye for signs a storm is weakening or strengthening. They can’t do that with the current set of satellites.

Another advantage is more images, he said. Currently, forecasters get a look at a storm every half-hour; GOES-R should cut that to 5 to 10 minutes.

“That will really be helpful in tracking the center” of a tropical system, Brennan said. The core of weaker storms can be obscured by clouds.

The most important benefit might be just bringing the technology pretty close to the current day. Satellites are meant to have a 7- to 10-year lifespan, so as technology improves on the ground the spacecraft quickly fall behind. The “R ” craft will be the first of the GOES series launched since 2010, and that satellite’s imagers were designed 22 years ago.

Evacuations Pinpointed

Fugate said one of his hopes is for an improvement in track and strength forecasting that will let officials better determine who needs to be evacuated and when. The result could be far fewer people sent fleeing from their homes in future storms.

The lightning mapper aboard the GOES-R can provide clues not only to the potential power of hurricanes but of all storms, Goodman said. Cloud-to-cloud lightning often increases as severe thunderstorms intensify.

While spotters on the ground might not be able to see a potential tornado because of heavy rain or the topography of the terrain, the satellite will be able to see if there’s more lightning.

“When lightning rates increase dramatically, that is a confirmation of a potentially tornadic storm,” Goodman said.

Besides proving new data for its human handlers, GOES-R will provide better data for storm tracking models, boosting their reliability.

And the benefits could reach beyond storm forecasting, Goodman said. The satellite will be able to pick out details in clouds and let forecasters find gravity waves that can lead to turbulence encountered by airlines.

Think of it: A smoother ride out of LaGuardia Airport might start in space.

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