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Seeing Sparks: First-of-its-Kind Lightning Mapper Tracks Storms from Space

November 19th might have seemed like an ordinary day to most. But ordinary this day was not. At precisely 6:42 p.m. EST, the GOES-16 satellite was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying about a dozen sophisticated instruments that will revolutionize the way we observe and predict weather on Earth.

On January 15th, 2017, GOES-16 relayed its first image back to Earth and over the next 15 years, the GOES-16 satellite will send images back to earth every 30 seconds from its cozy position of some 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. Such rapid-fire resolution combined with cutting edge instruments onboard will enable the GOES-16 satellite to produce more than 50 times the information provided by the previous GOES system. With spring just weeks away, one of the new instruments onboard the GOES-16 will give NWS meteorologists their most powerful tool yet for monitoring and forecasting severe weather.

GOES-R Lightning Mapper

Improved Lightning Detection  

Tucked away on the bottom left corner of GOES-16 is a seemingly innocuous device, no taller than your average person. Called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), it is the first operational lightning imager ever placed into geostationary orbit and promises to be a game changer for severe weather forecasting. The GLM will enable scientists to have continuous 24-hour coverage of total lightning activity throughout the GOES field of view, refreshing as frequently as every 2 milliseconds. Lightning is one of the top three causes of weather related death and injury in the United States each year. This dramatic lightning detection upgrade will allow real time lightning detection, even in the most remote areas. Undoubtedly, this will improve public safety both in the air and on the ground, but there’s something else about GOES-16 that has meteorologists excited. As NOAA scientist Dr. Scott Rudlosky explains, “Improved tornado warning lead-times are expected to be the biggest severe weather forecasting improvement from the GOES-16 GLM.”

Increased Tornado Warning Lead Times

One of the key indicators of a strengthening severe thunderstorm on the cusp of producing a tornado is a significant increase in lightning activity several minutes before a tornado touches down. “Lightning trends often indicate storm intensity, so forecasters monitor lightning information to help identify strengthening or weakening storms,” says Dr. Rudlosky. “The GLM monitors lightning flash rates which often increase rapidly about 20 minutes prior to severe weather at the surface.  This information can alert forecasters to storms that are undergoing rapid transitions and may produce severe weather.” By combining the new GLM observations with existing observation systems like Doppler radar, forecasters may now be able to issue a tornado warning for an area based on the increased lightning activity detected in a storm cell, potentially giving those in the storm’s path crucial extra time to prepare and take shelter.

Until now, lightning detection coverage gaps have resulted in such information not always being available to NWS meteorologists in real time. And when it comes to tornadoes, time can mean the difference between life and death.

And It’s Not Just Improved Tornado Warnings

The benefits of the GOES 16 satellite and its GLM device extend beyond better tornado forecasts. “Satellite precipitation estimates benefit from lightning data, as do estimates of tropical cyclone intensity change,” says Dr. Rudlosky. Beginning this year, NWS forecasters will be able to:

  • Issue improved local thunderstorm forecasts and warnings of impending lightning strike hazards.
  • Issue more timely warnings for severe weather hazards such as hail, flooding and strong winds
  • Provide better support for aviation safety and efficiency
  • Issue more accurate quantitative precipitation estimates for hydrology, water resources, agriculture, weather forecasting, and climatology
  • Issue better tropical cyclone forecasts.
  • Provide new observations for atmospheric chemistry and improve air quality forecasts.

Although the GOES 16 is still officially undergoing post-launch testing for the first year, the satellite is already hard at work, generating images and perspectives on our weather that we’ve never seen before. You can observe the action in real time too! Follow GOES R on twitter for daily images and updates. And for information on all of the cool things GOES R will be capable of, from space weather forecasts to improved climate change monitoring, be sure to visit the NOAA GOES R information page.