Weather Watch

This new satellite will improve weather forecasting and wildfire detection in California

Image from the GOES-16 satellite of a low pressure system spinning counterclockwise off the East Coast on Jan. 4.
Image from the GOES-16 satellite of a low pressure system spinning counterclockwise off the East Coast on Jan. 4.

There’s no doubt that satellites have revolutionized weather forecasting. A rocket carrying a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite is scheduled to launch March 1, and if it successively slings into orbit, it will be the most revolutionary yet — especially for those who live along the West Coast, and here’s why.

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.

Launched in 1960, the first satellite dedicated solely to weather observations was the TIROS-1, the first in a series of Television Infrared Observation Satellites, proved to be a massive 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.

On Nov. 19, 2016, an Atlas V rocket launched a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration next-generation weather satellite, GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite)-R into geostationary orbit from Cape Canaveral. After it was in place, it was designated GOES-16. It’s also referred to as GOES-East.

Much like the 1960 TIROS-1, this satellite produced fundamental improvements in weather forecasting. GOES-16 is providing colored images with four times the resolution of the older satellites. In other words, it’s like the difference between an X-ray and MRI. It’s that good.

More importantly, it is sending back information every minute, versus the previous GOES satellites that sent back data every half hour. This increased rate of information has allowed meteorologists to forecast life-threatening weather events such as thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes with higher accuracy.

The images of storms along the East Coast have been breathtaking. And that’s the problem; GOES-16 is positioned over the eastern United States and the Atlantic Ocean, limiting its effectiveness along the West Coast. However, this is all about to change, as the state-of- the-art GOES-S is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in less than two weeks.

“The new GOES-S (once in orbit GOES-17) for the West Coast will be placed in geostationary orbit at 137W longitude, which will give us a much better view of California compared to GOES-16 launched back in November 2016. A subset of imagery (mesoscale) will be focused on California and Nevada giving us pictures every minute, both night and day. This will be revolutionary for meteorologists to see cloud movement and development, much like a flowing river, to assist in weather predictions and severe weather interpretation.” Eric Boldt, a warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS office in Oxnard, told me.

Despite its position over the East Coast, GOES-East has been used by meteorologist and other public safety officials to detect wildfires in their earliest stages in California. Fire detection and tracking will only get better after GOES-17 is up and running.

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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