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Better Forecasts Ahead for Western Weather and Natural Disasters

The launch of a new generation of weather satellites is expected to bring dramatic improvements in imagery and, eventually, more accurate prediction of storms and natural disasters.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Cell phones light up the beaches of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach as spectators watch the 6:42 p.m. launch of the NOAA GOES-R weather satellite on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. It was successfully launched from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a ULA Atlas V rocket.Malcolm Denemark, AP via Florida Today

A new satellite parked 22,000 miles (35,000km) over the United States promises to deliver better storm forecasting for California and other Western states plagued by drought, floods and other weather extremes.

The GOES-R satellite was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral on Nov. 19. It is the first in a new generation of weather satellites that will be able to scan the planet five times faster and offer four times better imaging resolution than the current technology.

The new imagery offered by GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series) will be like switching from black-and-white TV to high definition, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“That means if I’m looking at a thunderstorm, before I wouldn’t get a picture of a storm but every 10 to 15 minutes,” said William Rasch, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service office in Sacramento. “But now, I’ll get a picture every 30 seconds. We’re going to see a lot more data than we were before.”

GOES-R is also bristling with new sensors. For instance, it carries the first operational lightning mapper in geostationary orbit. This will allow scientists to observe lightning as it evolves – an important indicator of storm intensity and direction.

It also includes sensors to monitor space weather such as solar flares, which may help predict the timing and intensity of potentially damaging electromagnetic storms on Earth.

More importantly for drought-plagued states like California, GOES-R will be parked in geostationary orbit over the West, allowing meteorologists to better predict precipitation, run-off amounts and flood risk.

Rasch said meteorologists now rely on weather balloons to obtain some of the fine detail they need on what’s happening in the atmosphere and in approaching storms. But these are launched only twice daily, and are as far as 100 miles apart. The new satellite will fill in those gaps with an almost real-time stream of data and imagery.

“The information is going to lead to some really good lead time for things like severe weather,” he said. “It’s probably one of the biggest advances we’ve had in the weather world for a long time.”

GOES-R is part of a series of four new geostationary weather satellites to be launched up to 2036, providing significantly improved coverage of the planet. Eventually, all the new data they churn out will also improve the computer models forecasters use to predict the weather.

This will help inform better decision-making about approaching storms, in turn improving, for example, reservoir management to conserve water and prevent floods.

An image of the GOES-R weather satellite, which was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. In addition to offering much higher resolution weather imagery, the satellite is bristling with sensors that provide new prediction capabilities. (NOAA)

An image of the GOES-R weather satellite, which was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. In addition to offering much higher resolution weather imagery, the satellite is bristling with sensors that provide new prediction capabilities. (NOAA)

Those improvements, however, could take years as the stream of new data is slowly integrated into forecasting models.

I think the biggest advantage from this will be data from over the Pacific Ocean going into the computer models we use for forecasting weather,” said Jan Null, an independent meteorologist at Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga, Calif. People studying atmospheric rivers and things like that, they’re going to have better data to analyze.”

The National Weather Service is also in the early stages of rolling out a new computer weather model to take advantage of all the data from the new satellites, potentially offering a significant increase in forecast accuracy.

But Null cautions that all this is happening as the weather service is about to begin a major reorganization, which may see staffing slashed at some forecasting offices.

“So you might have more data, but there are fewer people to look at it,” he said. “It has the meteorological community very concerned. Just because we get a picture every 30 seconds doesn’t mean we can use it every 30 seconds.”

Even so, the new satellite weather images are expected to be dazzling. And they will be seen wherever the public has access to weather information – from the nightly TV forecast to smartphone apps.

Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said the better imagery would also help manage the response to fast-moving natural disasters such as forest fires. Emergency managers will have better images arriving more often to help them track a fire’s size and direction.

“I think of a good weather forecaster as a lifesaver,” Patzert said. “Now you’re getting down to the point where you can create, literally, a more rapid response on the ground to more severe events.”

Benefits are also expected in the realm of aviation forecasts and flight route planning, helping aircraft avoid hazards such as turbulence. The satellite will provide clearer views of clouds at different elevations, better estimates of wind speed and direction and better detection of fog and ice.

It also carries a transponder to receive and transmit emergency beacons, helping to more accurately pinpoint distress signals for search-and-rescue teams on the ground.

GOES-R is expected to require as much as a year of testing and diagnostic work before it becomes fully operational. During that time, Rasch said, forecasters at regional weather service offices, like the one in Sacramento, will be given training to help them make the most of the new satellite’s capabilities.

Some of the benefits we’re going to get from it, we just don’t know yet,” Rasch added. “We’re going to learn that as we go along.”

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