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Why weather nerds are so excited these days

Two weeks ago, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched the first of a new generation of weather satellites: GOES-R.

One part of the package, called the Advanced Baseline Imager, will more than double the resolution of current NOAA satellites.

Christmas has come early for weather geeks and nerds.

Two weeks ago, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched the first of a new generation of weather satellites, GOES-R, a city bus-sized piece of hi-tech, hi-def wizardry that will seriously upgrade forecasting timeliness and accuracy.

How seriously? One part of the package, called the Advanced Baseline Imager, will more than double the resolution of current NOAA satellites, many of which have already reached the end of their effective life-spans. The ABI (in NASA-speak) can scan the whole hemisphere in five minutes, and if it detects a particularly dangerous weather pattern developing, its handlers will be able to scan a smaller slice of territory every 30 seconds. The “camera” system is so powerful it will return images with a resolution of 0.3 to 1.2 miles across the entire western hemisphere. Once locked in a geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles up, one gushing reviewer described it as “like [being able to see] the ridges on the side of a quarter located a mile away.”

Meteorologists understand that sudden bursts of lightning often mean that thunderstorms are becoming severe, increasing the possibility of tornadoes. So GOES-R has a “lightning mapper” that continuously monitors all lightning strikes across North America and the surrounding oceans.

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When it goes live, sometime in 2017, this data may extend the lead time of tornado warnings — by several critical minutes — as well as predict the location of flash flooding before it begins. Put another way, everything about it is pretty cool. (Whether we see additional interations of this generation of U.S. weather satellites — the $10.3 billion cost of the project is supposed to produce GOES-S, -T and -U​ sequentially through 2036 — will depend heavily on enthusiasm for science-y stuff from the incoming Trump administration’s Department of Commerce.)

“One way you can describe this,” says Ian Leonard, FOX 9’s lead weather guy, “is the system we have now is kind of like piecing together three or four iPhone pictures trying to make a landscape shot. With [GOES-R] everything, the entire hemisphere, is available immediately in a single shot and at something like four times the resolution. The lightning mapping capability alone is an incredible upgrade.”

He explains that while increased lightning isn’t a guarantee of tornado activity, it correlates often enough that being able to see it develop, via both ground tracking and cloud-to-cloud with the quality of GOES-R means forecasters can zero in on the developing front and quite possibly add several key minutes of warning to people in its track.

Leonard sounds jazzed by what the hi-rez upgrade means for TV viewers. “It’ll be awesome for use, especially during the summer when we’re on alert for systems going convective.” Adding, “To me, it’s just a mesmerizing technical improvement over what we could do 30 years ago. The way to increase accuracy is always to input more good information. The higher resolution from [GOES-R] should give us many more operating points to build algorithms [for forecasting.] I tell people it’s like the stock market. If you ask 50 advisers for input, you stand to get a better answer than if you ask just one.”

Over at MPR, Paul Huttner is no less enthusiastic. Higher resolution is great, he says, but “the faster scans [once every 30 seconds] is in some ways an even bigger upgrade.” Summer storms can build quickly and when they do forecasters want as close to real-time surveillance as possible.

With closer-to-real-time monitoring, Huttner also anticipates fewer credibility-sapping “false alarms” from the National Weather Service. “In terms of tornado activity and tracking, ground-based Doppler remains a key component. And the Weather Service will admit it has a tendency to overwarn. But this new layer of data from [GOES-R] should helpa lot with the false-alarm factor. It’s so important that people take severe weather warnings seriously you can’t overstate the importance getting it right. Right now tornado forecasting has a long ways to go. A 70 percent false-alarm ratio is just not acceptable.”

That said, Huttner reminds lay weather nerds that, “Far more damage is done here in the upper Midwest by micro-bursts with straight line winds and thunderstorms than tornadoes.”

The quantum leap in imaging coming from GOES-R, he says, is “like stepping up from analog to HDTV,” which will no doubt fill meteorologist conventions and seminars with all sorts of chatter over new techniques and graphics packages. (This prompts a question to Huttner about why MPR doesn’t have a real-time radar up on its website? To which he replies: “Believe me, I’ve argued for it.”)

GOES-R is a distinctly American product now in orbit primarily to improve forecasting for American meteorologists (and citizens). But its positioning, as Leonard and Huttner point out, will serve virtually the entire western hemisphere.

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Like the entire GOES network, though, it is an example of commendable international cooperation among scientists/governments around the planet.

That too is cool.