Weather Watch

New and better weather satellites continue to improve our forecasting

An image from NOAA’s geostationary (GOES) satellites shows water vapor concentrations during an intense Gulf of Alaska storm.
An image from NOAA’s geostationary (GOES) satellites shows water vapor concentrations during an intense Gulf of Alaska storm.

Back in the 1970s, my dad and I backpacked into the Marble Mountains about 60 miles northeast of Eureka in Northern California.

On clear nights at Cliff Lake in this wilderness area far away from urban lights, we would gaze at the Milky Way and marvel — it did look like a backbone across the sky.

Our local newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, would publish the times when satellites would cross the night sky, and we watched as they moved rapidly overhead.

Little did I know back then that these orbiters would one day be instrumental in my career as a weather forecaster; later this month, a new sentinel in the sky will make even a greater impact for weather prospectors. Here’s why.

Satellites revolutionized forecasts. From the Central Coast’s backyard, Vandenberg Air Force Base launched many of these satellites. Some of the first pictures taken of clouds from above the Earth occurred in the post-World War II rocket age.

In 1946, an unmanned American rocket equipped with a camera reached an altitude of 65 miles and recorded pictures of the Earth’s clouds from space. In 1957, Russia’s Sputnik orbited the Earth. As the Cold War fumed, the launch of Sputnik caused the United States to accelerate its space program, and the meteorological community benefited.

The first satellite dedicated solely to weather observations was launched in 1960. The TIROS-1, the first in a series of Television Infrared Observation Satellites, proved to be a huge success with meteorologists worldwide and led directly to the development of more sophisticated satellites, including geostationary satellites.

Geostationary satellites orbit the earth at 22,300 miles. At this height, the satellite appears to hover over a single point on the Earth’s surface. The benefit of a geostationary orbit is that it allows the same reference point for cloud photos, which are looped to provide an estimated time of arrival of storm systems.

This Saturday, an Atlas V rocket is scheduled to lift the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s next-generation weather satellite, GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite)-R into geostationary orbit from Cape Canaveral.

Much like the 1960 TIROS-1, this satellite will produce fundamental improvements in weather forecasting. GOES-R will provide Western Hemisphere images that will have four times the resolution of today’s satellite images. In other words, it will be like the difference between an X-ray and MRI.

More importantly, it will send back information every 30 seconds, versus today’s GOES satellites that send back information every half hour. This increased rate of weather data will allow meteorologists to forecast life-threatening weather events such as thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes with greater accuracy. Not to be outdone, GOES-S will be launched in 2018, providing even more detailed information.

The success of satellites, not only for weather forecasting but also communications and other applications, has led to ever-increasing numbers of man-made objects in orbit. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network has been tracking space objects since 1957 with the launch of Sputnik.

The network is currently tracking 17,865 man-made orbiting objects as of Saturday, or more than twice as many as 2009. There is an interesting website that allows a viewer to track satellites, including the International Space Station, in real time. Go to www.n2yo.com.

Award honors veterans

The Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Department of Defense office, presented PG&E with the Extraordinary Employer Support Award during a ceremony at Diablo Canyon Power Plant on Thursday in recognition of the plant’s large contingent of veteran employees.

“The discipline, dedication and passion shown by veterans have played a big role in operating our power plant. It’s an honor to have the ESGR present PG&E the Extraordinary Employer Support Award at Diablo Canyon. We appreciate having this acknowledgment of those who have dedicated and sacrificed so much and are now serving our 16 million customers,” said Senior Vice President of Generation and Chief Nuclear Officer Ed Halpin, who was also a U.S. Navy submarine officer and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.

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