Wednesday, May 24, 2017

GOES-16: A Weather and Climate Game-Changer

When it comes to weather forecasting, meteorologists are often only as good as the technology and data they have access to. Perhaps one of the greatest leaps forward for the weather enterprise in the 21st Century is not even on this planet, but rather orbiting well above it. One satellite has the capability of changing how we see many facets of our atmosphere.

GOES-16, the satellite formerly known as GOES-R, is the latest and greatest in a long line of weather satellites placed into orbit by the United States. (Geostationary satellites use a letter designation prior to reaching orbit, then switch to a number once reaching orbit.) Launched back on November 19, 2016, the satellite has been undergoing a number of post-launch tests for the past several months. The plan is for GOES-16 to be providing its full suite of data and imagery in the coming month or so, with certification to be "fully operational" before the end of 2017. In the meantime, some non-operational or “unofficial” data is available, leaving many atmospheric scientists gawking and giving hope that this new generation of satellites will further expand our knowledge of weather and climate, both on earth and in space.

The GOES-16 satellite is equipped with many new pieces of technology that separate it from its predecessors. The Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) is the "camera" that points towards earth and contains many more than 3 times as many imagery bands, or channels, as the current GOES satellites. Meanwhile, perhaps the most unique new tool aboard GOES-16 is the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), which will allow scientists to gain a new perspective of where lightning occurs via a sensing platform in geosynchronous orbit over the western hemisphere.

The GOES-16 satellite system has five unique instruments for sensing the environment, from space to earth. Three of those are for monitoring space weather and the other two (the Advanced Baseline Imager [ABI] and the Geostationary Lightning Mapper[GLM]) sense the atmosphere surrounding the earth. (Image courtesy: NASA)
Satellite data is incredibly valuable to meteorologists as it provides a unique perspective of our weather and planet. While ground-based instrumentation is important, that merely allow us to observe what is occurring at the surface, as with weather stations, or in the lowest several thousand feet of the atmosphere with radar. Satellite imagery, like visible, infrared, and water vapor loops, provides a top-down view of what is going on above us that cannot be gathered from other sources. The imagery from GOES-16 has also been greatly improved, providing more frequent updates, with higher resolution, that can be zoomed-in to focus on active weather phenomena.

A comparison of the full-disk imagery available from a current GOES satellite (GOES-13, right) and the new GOES satellite (GOES-16, left). (Image courtesy: NOAA/NASA)
Think of it this way. You are going to replace a digital camera that takes pictures with a resolution of 5 megapixels, but only every 5 seconds. The new camera you buy has 20 megapixel resolution and can snap a picture every second! That is a great improvement right? 4 times better resolution and 5 times faster! Now add in that your old camera had 5 filters that could be applied and your new one has 16. That's how GOES-16 compares to its predecessors!

So what makes this satellite so important for the future of weather and science? Those who study weather, climate, space, and other environmental factors have reached the limit of what can be observed with the current satellites that have been in existence for about 20 years. GOES-16 will provide a wealth of new, and very valuable, information for climate scientists, meteorologists, and other researchers for the next couple of decades. In fact, an identical satellite, GOES-17, will be launched into orbit in spring 2018. While GOES-16 will be moved into an orbit that best covers the eastern U.S. in the next several months, GOES-17 will take up the position over the western U.S. within the next two years to provide complete coverage of the western hemisphere with the new satellites.

With the fire-hose of  new data, we will be able to observe the atmosphere above us with greater precision than ever before. This allows for improvements in severe weather warning lead time, detection of flash flood threats and wildfires in remote areas, volcanic ash that is a significant hazard to air travel, quicker recognition of rapid changes in tropical cyclone strength, and even dust over the oceans that hinders their formation. As we learn how to use the wealth of GOES-16 data, it will become a vital tool for atmospheric scientists for years to come.

You can learn more about GOES-16 and the entire series of GOES satellites, as well as view additional imagery, by visiting the GOES-R website hosted by NOAA and NASA. We have already shared some very cool "preliminary, non-operational" imagery from GOES-16 on our social media channels, such as that shown above, and we look forward to bringing you much more in the coming months and years!

One of the early images beamed back to Earth from GOES-16 shows an oblique view of  our planet with the moon in the background. (Image courtesy NOAA)
Alex Herbst, Meteorologist
MWN Intern

Erik Proseus
MWN Meteorologist

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