Science First Look

New NOAA satellite tracks lightning in real time from space

NOAA's GOES-16 weather satellite released the first images from a new instrument that tracks lightning storms on Earth.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hopes a new satellite in orbit will enlighten our understanding of a flashy weather phenomenon and lead to better forecasts of severe storms.

NOAA released on Monday the first images captured by the GOES-16 satellite, snapped on Valentine's Day from 22,300 miles above Earth. The images and video show lightning flashes across the Western Hemisphere over the course of an hour.

The new instrument, one of several aboard the satellite, marks a leap forward in monitoring and understanding lightning storms. In its first week in orbit, the instrument – the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, or GLM – recorded more lightning data than all previous data captured about the weather event from space combined.

NOAA hopes that more data will lead to better storm predictions.

"As you can imagine, we are pretty excited here at NOAA Satellites," spokeswoman Connie Barclay told NPR in an email. "Lightning strikes the US on average of 25 million times each year, and kills on average 49 people in the US each year."

The lightning detector is in geostationary orbit – it remains in the same location relative to the ground below it – allowing it to continuously track lightning storms.

It works by looking for flashes anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, “so forecasters know when a storm is forming, intensifying, and becoming more dangerous,” explains NOAA. 

“Rapid increases of lightning are a signal that a storm is strengthening quickly and could produce severe weather,” the agency said in a press release. "When combined with radar and other satellite data, GLM data may help forecasters anticipate severe weather and issue flood and flash flood warnings sooner."

In addition, the instrument will help identify lightning-sparked wildfires in dry areas like the American West, which should lead to faster response times from fire crews.

The first images from the GLM reveal lightning flashes from the Gulf of Mexico to the southern coast of South America. In the image, brighter colors indicate more lightning energy (or more kilowatt-hours of total optical emissions) recorded.

NOAA also released a video that showed images of lightning storms developing over southeast Texas, as NPR’s Rebecca Hersher reported. Tornadoes from that storm system destroyed homes near Houston, wrote Ms. Hersher.

Unlike traditional time-lapse animations that appear jerky because the images are presented more quickly than they were gathered, this video is a slower version of what the satellite sees, brought down from the satellite's 500 frames per second to a more human 25 frames per second.

NOAA also expects the instrument to provide better forecasting of lightning storms over oceans, benefiting those traveling in the air or water, as well as better predictions of in-cloud lightning, a precursor to lightning strikes that make landfall.

The GOES-16 satellite was launched in November with the GLM aboard, to the excitement of the weather community.

"For weather forecasters, GOES-R will be similar to going from a black-and-white TV to super-high-definition TV," said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA's Satellite and Information Services division, using another name for the satellite.

"For the American public, that will mean faster, more accurate weather forecasts and warnings," he said, as well as "more lives saved and better environmental intelligence for state and local officials and all decision makers."

In addition to the lightning monitor, the satellite is outfitted with five other imaging and data-collection instruments. A Harris Corp. onboard camera can photograph inside the eye of a hurricane, a new perspective that promises forecasters the ability to measure the intensity and timeline of storms, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported. Another instrument monitors solar flares and space weather and fluctuations in radiation levels they cause.

It’s a big deal," Fred Johnson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Melbourne, Fla., told USA Today. "It’s a big upgrade from what we’ve had in the past. This should save lives and property."

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