In the field of meteorology, there are sometimes game-changing technological advances that improve storm monitoring and weather forecasting. A few that come to mind include Doppler radar, automated observing systems, or faster computer models. This weekend, add the GOES-R weather satellite to the list. If all goes as planned, the satellite will be launched into orbit by an Atlas rocket from Florida’s Space Coast just before dinner on Saturday. In this Sunday’s episode of The Weather Channel’s Noon ET Talk Show Weather Geeks I take stock,
GOES-R is to current weather satellites like going from a flip phone to a smartphone.
There are several reasons why this is a game-changer, but I want to highlight four.
Resolution, resolution, resolution: GOES-R continues a legacy of orbiting geostationary satellites to monitor the weather. Like other satellites placed in geostationary orbit, the satellite remains fixed with respect to the same point on Earth. At about 22,000 miles above the surface, it orbits at roughly the same rate of rotation as the planet. This is essential for monitoring storms, sending your satellite TV signals and other applications. From this altitude, spatial resolution (the size of the finest details that can be resolved) was a challenge. GOES-R will carry the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI). GOES-R will provide four times the spatial resolution (can see finer features), five times faster temporal coverage (can image the Earth or changing weather systems faster), and three times the spectral information (can see weather systems from different perspectives ranging from visible to infrared). The following table is a comparison of ABI and current GOES capability. The United States is essentially switching to the weather equivalent of “high definition-HD”.
This means that a rapidly evolving tornadic storm system can be monitored closer to its native time evolution rather than in choppy samples. Additionally, the finer details (think more megapixels in your digital camera means better images) can help identify aspects of weather systems that may have been unsolvable with current capabilities. Tornado and tropical weather systems often provide clues to their cloud top characteristics and dynamic evolution that can aid in vital forecasts. Click on this link to see an example of how this improved resolution works.
The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM): Lightning is both impressive and dangerous. For the first time, a satellite will be able to map total lightning (cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground (CG)) continuously. While this has potential use for lightning hazard alerts, research suggests that lightning activity can also provide precursor information about tornadoes. This recent article found that lightning jumps (increases in lightning rates) were observed in CG and total lightning rates in the 0–14 minutes preceding tornadogenesis during a storm in Japan. Similar discoveries have been made in the United States. NASA provides great analysis here of GLM potential using a recent tornado case from Moore, Oklahoma.
Space Weather: An unsung value of GOES-R will be its advanced capabilities for monitoring coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and other solar “belches and burps” that send streams of particles down to Earth. Such flares and associated “extreme” space weather events can devastate our communications and transportation infrastructure. Analysts have estimated that an extreme solar event could cost the US economy “trillions” and argued that we are not sufficiently prepared. GOES-R is an impressive new addition to the first line of defense.
Partnerships with agencies have worked perfectly: this game-changing element is not obvious but extremely important. GOES-R is an excellent example of partnership between NOAA, NASA and the private sector. As we move towards new leadership in the United States, it is essential to understand the roles that key players play. As a former NASA scientist, I have always viewed NASA as the research and development (R&D) arm of NOAA’s operational mission. are partners and have unique complementary strengths. In addition, the various aerospace contractors and scientists in the private sector (and in some cases academia) provide essential hardware, software and “brains” (to borrow from my colleague, Dr. Tony Busalacchi of UCAR). Our nation’s science agencies are critical to security, science and technology inertia, and public-private manpower. Political decisions are difficult, but I’m sure all parties understand the vital role of satellites like GOES-R and many of our current systems are aging.
I’m not just someone who writes about weather and climate. I am a scientist. I spent 12 years as an earth scientist at NASA working with advanced satellite systems to study or monitor the weather. I say this to emphasize that if I’m excited about GOES-R, you really should be too. Game-changing is not an exaggeration.