Meteorology Just Took a Giant Leap Forward
From the time we humans first squinted at the gathering clouds, wondering if the rains would come, our species has strived to predict the weather. Fathoming what the next day, the next hour, even the next minute might bring ultimately hinges on having more information. To this end, GOES-16—the most advanced weather satellite in U.S. history—launched in November 2016, opening up a fire hose of data and promising a new era of precision forecasting.
GOES-16, the first of the next generation of spacecraft for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system, is the centerpiece of the National Weather Service’s forecasts. Compared to its immediate predecessors, GOES-16 provides three times more imaging channels, four times better image resolution, and five times faster data collection.
“Forecasters have described the difference as going from black-and-white television to HDTV,” said Steven Goodman, the GOES-16 chief program scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which runs the project in close collaboration with NASA.
The upshot of all of GOES-16’s boosted metrics: highly accurate, detailed readings of atmospheric and surface conditions that will enable authorities to alert and help people potentially in harm’s way, saving lives and property.
And it’s already having a substantial impact predicting severe weather. GOES-16 offers improvements in hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts, increased lead time for thunderstorm and tornado warnings, earlier lightning ground-strike hazard alerts, and better detection of heavy rainfall and the associated risks of flash flooding.
During normal operations, GOES-16’s powerful camera scans the entire western hemisphere every 15 minutes. When there’s an acute weather event, GOES-16 can relay data-rich images just 30 seconds apart, capturing dynamic changes that reveal a storm’s next move.
“The faster scan rate helps in thunderstorm and tornado forecasting and warning, allowing forecasters to see what’s happening, not what’s already happened,” says Goodman.
Side-by-side comparison of GOES-16 (left) and GOES-13 (right) coverage of Hurricane Irma on the morning of September 5, 2017. GOES-16’s primary instrument, the Advanced Baseline Imager, offers a faster scanning rate and sharper resolution than does its predecessor’s equipment. Credit: NOAA/CIMSS
As mentioned by Goodman, GOES-16 further aids with wildfires, including those that recently ravaged Northern California. The satellite’s unprecedented visual resolution zeroes in on where exactly fires are burning or freshly igniting, and in nearly real time. This fine spatial and temporal resolution lets forecasters identify new fires quickly and relay tactical information to state and county agencies regarding the fires’ spread. Doing so buys precious extra minutes for “reverse 911″ calls to go out from authorities to endangered residents.
Grass fires burn near Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida on February 20, 2017. GOES-16 (left) views the scene in visible and infrared light, capturing new images in 30-second intervals. GOES-13 (right) completes scans every 15 to 30 minutes, with lower resolution. Credit: NOAA/NASA
GOES-16’s data also enables better fog forecasting for commercial air travel. One example Goodman provided: On March 3, 2017, a patch of fog formed over San Francisco International Airport. This would normally cause significant flight delays, but GOES-16 revealed the edges of the fog starting to erode, increasing forecasters’ confidence regarding when the fog would clear. SFO’s flight controllers were able to minimize flight delays with this data. The NOAA National Weather Service Aviation Weather Center estimates the savings at $100,000 based on reduced fuel consumption, crew time, and airline costs associated with missed passenger connections, according to the NOAA National Weather Service Aviation Weather Center.
“GOES-16 is already improving aviation forecasting, saving time and money,” Goodman says.
The full benefits of GOES-16 have yet to arrive. Later this year, the satellite will move into its operational position in orbit, taking over as the dedicated GOES-EAST unit, working in tandem with a west satellite to offer blanket coverage of the hemisphere.
“Together, these satellites see from the coast of West Africa to Guam—and everything in between,” Goodman says.
The torrent of publicly available data will empower a range of users to apply GOES measurements in valuable, novel ways.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.
Illustrations created by WIRED Brand Lab for Western Digital based on publicly available data from the NOAA. Quotes and GOES-16 satellite stats provided by Steven Goodman of the NOAA for use on Data Makes Possible website and channels.