This Satellite Will Be the Future of Storm Tracking

NOAA’s new satellite will make forecasting devastating storms (and epic powder days) more accurate than ever

This Satellite Will Be the Future of Storm Tracking

With new weather tracking technology, the world's unpredictable weather is becoming less a mystery—but even more intriguing.    Photo: antonyspencer / iStock

Earlier this year, an ice storm moving across the Midwest caused power outages in thousands of homes, a 20-car pileup in Wichita, Kansas, and six deaths. It was one of the nastiest weather events of the season, but it was notable for another reason: it was the first to be tracked by NOAA’s new geostationary weather satellite. Launched last November, the GOES-16 is among a new fleet of NOAA spacecraft that will dramatically improve the weather data available to scientists and meteorologists. This means everything from more accurate forecasts for powder chasers’ weather apps to robust images of hurricanes rolling toward the eastern seaboard. “For fore­casters, these satellites are the most critical tools we have,” says Joe Pica, director of NOAA ­National Weather Service’s office of obser­vations. “The GOES-16 is game-changing.”

How does it work? By taking 16 simultaneous snapshots of a weather system through ­sophisticated filters that show everything from real-time forest fires to developing dust storms. Here, one of GOES-16’s developers, Tim Schmit, walks us through four images captured during that January storm. 


High-Speed and High-Def

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  Photo: Courtesy of NOAA

GOES-16’s images are four times more detailed than previous U.S. weather satellites’, and it can transmit pictures back to earth every five minutes. (In the past, it took 15 minutes.) This provides an exceptionally accurate idea of when and where severe weather, like that ice storm over the Midwest, will hit hardest. 

Cloud Cover

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  Photo: Courtesy of NOAA

In this view, white clouds become dark if they con­tain ice. This can help predict which weather ­systems could turn into large storms. Clouds cooling at a faster rate are likely morphing from cumulus to massive cumu­lonimbus, which lead to severe weather.

Heat Sensitivity

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  Photo: Courtesy of NOAA

This infrared image shows variations in temperature. Pinpointing hot spots could allow emergency responders to react to fires and evacuate surrounding areas before smoke is even visible to humans. Obviously, it’s not that hot during an ice storm.

Moisture Content

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  Photo: Courtesy of NOAA

This image shows water vapor, which can turn into clouds. You can see moisture from the Gulf of Mexico wrapping counterclockwise into the Midwest. This data can help forecasters tell if a storm will get stronger or dissipate. In this case, it’s getting stronger.

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