The first images from a landmark weather satellite launched in November are beaming back to Earth, and scientists are seeing the third planet from the sun like never before.
Towering cloud tops bubbling with ice, spreading puddles of rain-cooled air from growing thunderstorms, and vast fields of grainy Saharan dust can now be viewed in a striking Technicolor detail that almost seems 3D.
It’s innovation that has been more than two decades in the making — an upgrade from 1980s-era technology that can send images not only at a quality four times better than what was previously available, but also at five times faster the speed.
“Someone used the word ‘stunning,’ and I would say that is a pretty good adjective,” said Steve Goodman, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What blew me out of the water was the spatial resolution. I think this will change our understanding of what we know about clouds and severe weather.”
The pictures are coming from the GOES-16 satellite, previously dubbed GOES-R when it was still Earth-bound. GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, and the GOES-16 is the latest in a series of GOES satellites that were first launched in 1975. Geostationary means that GOES-R will orbit with the Earth, keeping pace with the planet’s spin and with a focus mostly on North America.
It carries the Advanced Baseline Imager — a 16-channel camera built by the Melbourne-based Harris Corp. The current satellites have just five channels.
While the current satellites take 1,400 scans to capture the Western Hemisphere, the Imager can do it in 21. During severe weather, forecasters can hone in on particular storms and request scans every 30 seconds.
“With GOES-16, you basically see weather as it is happening, rather than weather that happened earlier,” Goodman said.
Radar images scan about every six minutes, so to see how a storm is changing means a 12-minute wait, Goodman said. In Florida, the delay can be a problem for meteorologists tracking summertime thunderstorms that can evolve quickly when the afternoon sea breeze picks up on both coasts.
Florida thunderstorms can build on each other, sparking multi-cell systems that can be hard to track with slow-moving radar and satellite images.
“You have storms developing and you don’t know which storm you are looking at in the second image. It’s a big mishmash,” Goodman said. “GOES-16 gives you continuous traceability.”
It’s hoped the rapid refresh of images will help forecasters better predict dangerous weather so that warnings can issued earlier. The satellite also has a Geostationary Lightning Mapper — the first of its kind in orbit — that will help determine whether a thunderstorm is developing by looking at not just cloud-to-ground lightning, but also cloud-to-cloud lightning.
“The greatest use of GOES-16’s new capabilities will be in monitoring severe weather events, such as squall lines that pass through the Florida Peninsula, and for observing wildfire events such as can occur in the Everglades,” said Chris Velden, a hurricane expert and senior researcher at the University of Wisconsin’s Space, Science and Engineering Center. “The very high spatiotemporal image sampling will be able to detect and track these smaller-scale events.”
Velden expects the satellite to also improve hurricane forecasting by giving scientists a more intimate look at the winds swirling around the cyclone high in the atmosphere. The National Hurricane Center will have access to the images beginning March 1 and will be able to use them in a provisional manner for the 2017 hurricane season that begins June 1, Goodman said.
But the impact on tropical meteorology will depend on where GOES-16 is ultimately placed.
There is debate about whether it should be over the Pacific Ocean, or the Atlantic Ocean, Goodman said.
California doesn’t get a high frequency of severe weather, but wildfires and storms over Hawaii and Alaska will be more visible if it’s over the Pacific. Over the Atlantic, it will see tropical cyclones more clearly, plus tornadoes in Dixie Alley, which loosely includes Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and sometimes the western stretch of Florida.
If GOES-16 finds a home over the Pacific, the next satellite, which has identical technology, will launch in spring 2018 and be placed over the Atlantic.
“The big thing is, we haven’t changed the instrumentation in 22 years, and the lightning mapper is a whole new thing,” Goodman said. “When I turn on the TV and see the lightning flashes dancing on cloud tops, I’m going to toast to that.”