This new weather satellite isn’t just good for the United States, it’s good for the world


The weather satellites that silently monitor the atmosphere above North America are nearing the end of their lifespan. If they fail, the United States will be left without critical weather data. NOAA and NASA scientists have been warning about this risk for years. In the late 1990s, they started designing instruments for the next generation of satellites.

GOES-R, the first of the new series to be launched, will join a large constellation of US satellites – operated by NOAA, NASA and the Department of Defense – that observe our planet’s weather and environment.

It’s a game-changer for weather forecasting, but it’s also part of a bigger picture. GOES-R joins an international network of satellites that freely share data between nearly 200 countries. The United States provides data to other countries so they can generate accurate forecasts and alert people to prepare for weather events. In turn, these countries share their data with the US National Weather Service.

Early warning of crippling blizzards, long-range hurricane forecasts – even severe thunderstorm prospects – are possible with free weather data from Europe, China and Russia. It’s a mutual understanding based on an unspoken principle: our well-being matters, as does yours, and we can’t do it without each other.

The notion of sharing weather information dates back to the late 1800s, when knowledge was essential to maritime activity. More than a century later, an unfathomable amount of weather data is shared among 191 governments as members of the World Meteorological Organization, or WMO, an agency of the United Nations. The organization’s role became crucial after the United States launched the first weather satellite in 1961 and other countries followed suit.

“That’s one of the big things that’s changed in my lifetime,” said Richard Rood, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Michigan. “The United States was originally the only global network, then the Europeans, Japan and India all started launching their own satellites. We had to develop a data sharing agreement.

The international space age prompted the leaders of the WMOs of the United States and the USSR to create a World Weather Watch program that allows any country to receive all the weather data it needs to protect life and property. Global satellite data is essential to this goal. It is the backbone of forecasting models, or numerical weather prediction. More than 90% of the data ingested by the models comes from satellites around the world.

“People don’t wonder why the forecast has improved,” said Cliff Mass, a professor of meteorology at the University of Washington. “If you look at the revolutions that made forecasting possible, numerical weather forecasting is one, and satellites are another.”

They measure the circulation of the atmosphere – the speed and direction of the wind – based on how clouds move over time. They can see long-wave radiation escaping from the ground and oceans, which is directly related to temperature and humidity deep in the atmosphere. This information, along with “true field” observations from thermometers and weather balloons, is used as a starting point for forecasts. And it can be used to bring the model back to reality if it gets lost.

Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 is perhaps the most significant recent example of the role of the satellite network in weather forecasting. satellites were at his accurate prediction. Without information from polar-orbiting satellites, which can observe the entire globe in 24 hours, the forecast “would have given no useful indication 4-5 days before the storm would make landfall on the Jersey Shore.” the study concluded.

“It goes beyond just forecasting for the public,” said Rob Masters, WMO’s director of external relations. “It is a key source for long-term forecasts and in various sectors of our economy, the environment, health and transport of all kinds.”

There have been times when nations have threatened to leave the partnership, said Rood, a consultant for the National Weather Service’s next-generation forecasts who has been involved in weather and climate modeling for decades. Eventually, he said, governments would realize how badly this would degrade their forecasts.

“When I worked at NASA, once in a while a country would say they wanted to withdraw their [weather balloons]Rood recalls. “We would do experiments to look at the impacts, and also to show the impacts if we take ours out as well. If you start holding back, you’re not just punishing them or us, you’re punishing everyone.

WMO nations don’t just share data – they also have a history of sharing spacecraft.

In 1989, the satellite monitoring the east coast failed, leaving NOAA with only one satellite over the Pacific Ocean. Replacements for the aging satellites were underway, but the project was years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. So in 1993 the Europeans moved one of their Atlantic Ocean satellites further west to fill the void.

The previous year, this same European satellite had been able to help meteorologists track and forecast the deadly Hurricane Andrew, which had devastated Florida.

And courtesy goes both ways. Prior to joining OMM, Masters worked in the satellite division of NOAA. He recalled that in 2002, the United States loaned its GOES-9 satellite to Japan after its Western Pacific satellite began to run out of fuel.

“They had a miss and they were blind,” Masters said, “so we made sure one of our satellites could move over there.”

With the addition of GOES-R, the United States will have four satellites stationed over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to monitor North American weather. But the new generation bears little resemblance to the old.

GOES-R’s “camera” instrument – called the Advanced Baseline Imager – doubles the resolution of current NOAA satellites. It can scan the entire hemisphere in five minutes, and if a particularly dangerous weather phenomenon is approaching, forecasters can scan a smaller region over the United States every 30 seconds.

Sudden lightning could mean thunderstorms are getting severe. Thus, GOES-R has a lightning mapping tool to continuously monitor and transmit all lightning strikes across North America and surrounding oceans.

All of this data will be fed into weather models to improve the accuracy of forecasts. This could extend the timeline for tornado warnings and predict the location of flash floods before they start. In other words, it could save more lives not just in the United States, but abroad.

GOES-R is scheduled to go live in 2017. When it does, it will feed the National Weather Service’s forecasts with critical and vital data. It will also build on a decades-long tradition of international cooperation and humanitarian goodwill.

“It’s probably the most complex technology that our species is involved in – weather forecasting,” Mass said. “And we do it together as one species. It is one of our greatest successes.


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