Weather Watch

The ferocity of a storm captured on satellite imagery can be captivating — and life saving

Without a doubt, satellites have revolutionized weather forecasting and significantly increased public safety.

It started in the post-World War II rocket age in 1946 when an American unmanned rocket equipped with a camera reached an altitude of 65 miles and recorded pictures of the earth’s clouds from space. These were some of the first pictures taken of clouds from above the planet. —

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 massive success with meteorologists worldwide and led directly to the development of more sophisticated satellites, including geostationary satellites.

A geostationary satellite orbits 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.

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GOES-West satellite captures imagery of Barbara, a large and powerful Category 4 hurricane on July 2. NOAA

Much like TIROS-1 did in the ‘60s, the first of a new class of weather satellite was launched into geostationary orbit from Cape Canaveral a little over 10 years ago, producing fundamental improvements in meteorological and oceanographic forecasting. This was NOAA’s GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) series of satellites.

Today, we have a constellation of three of these fantastic sentries in the sky along the equator: GOES-East, stationed at 75.2 degrees west that primarily watches the East Coast, while GOES-West has the best view of the West Coast at 137.2 degrees west. Coverage from both of these birds overlaps much of Central and North America. Stationed between the GOES-East and GOES-West at 105 degrees west is a GOES-14, which is in cold storage at 22,300 miles above the Earth but can be put in operation in case of a failure of either GOES-East or West.

These satellites produce images that have four times the resolution than previous models were able to yield. In other words, it’s the difference between an x-ray and MRI; it’s that good.

The pictures from these satellites reveal the jellyfish-like movement of the marine layer as it expands inland during the night and contracts to the ocean during the day. You can clearly see the fierce beauty of Gulf of Alaska storms spinning counterclockwise like a whirlpool and occasionally the high-level clouds produced by the jet stream that carries these mid-latitude cyclones to California.

Visible are city lights at night and the numerous square-shaped agricultural fields of the San Joaquin Valley during the day. They even have improved monitoring of space weather. You can see these images by visiting the NWS Forecast Office Los Angeles website at

More importantly, they send back information every 30 seconds versus the previous generation of satellites that sent back information every half hour. This increased rate of data has allowed meteorologist to forecast life-threatening weather events like thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes with greater accuracy and near real-time mapping of lightning activity.

The higher rates of data retrieval and new advance imaging sensors placed on these satellites have allowed PG&E to develop the Satellite Fire Detection and Alerting System. This is a state-of-the-science program that incorporates data from the GOES-R fleet, as well as three polar-orbiting satellites, and ground base wildfire alert cameras to provide advanced warning 24/7 of potential new fire incidents.

The PG&E meteorology team led the development of this program in collaboration with experts in satellite fire detection. The system became fully operational in late June 2019 and is expected to provide an early, if not the first, indication of a wildfire. This system is part of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program (CWSP).

In addition to improving real-time monitoring and intelligence capabilities, other actions PG&E is taking as part of CWSP include putting in place new and enhanced safety measures and doing more over the long-term to strengthen the safety and resiliency of the electric grid to further reduce future wildfire risks.

More information can be found at

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 or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
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