Lightning from space: Satellite promises a 'quantum leap' in forecasting

(USA TODAY) -- Every second, dozens of bolts of lightning crack across the sky with flashes that can reach of 50,000 degrees — five times as hot as the surface of the sun. Pinpointing exactly where and when lightning strikes the Earth holds a key for forecasting severe weather outbreaks.

Now, for the first time, a new satellite instrument is giving forecasters their best views ever of these dangerous bolts.

The new images, released Monday, come from the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, an instrument onboard the recently launched GOES-16 satellite that can take a whopping 500 pictures a second, said engineer Tim Gasparrini of Lockheed Martin, which designed and built it.

The spectacular images will help meteorologists increase lead times for severe storm warnings. It's "a quantum leap in forecasting severe weather such as tornadoes," Gasparrini said.

The instrument is "transmitting data never before available to forecasters," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.

The mapper,  the first lightning detector in a geostationary orbit, continually looks for lightning flashes in the Western Hemisphere.

It takes photos not only of the lightning bolts that hit the Earth, but also the bolts that go between or within clouds, which are actually more common and a precursor of cloud-to-ground strikes. "It will show the lightning activity at the tops of the clouds," said Steve Goodman, a NOAA program scientist.

The flashes help forecasters know when a storm is intensifying and becoming more dangerous.

Rapid increases of lightning signal that a storm is strengthening quickly and could produce severe weather, NOAA said. Scientists will be able to spot a significant increase in total lightning activity, often many minutes before radar detects the potential for severe weather.

"We will be able to warn sooner than if we only had radar," Goodman said. "This adds information the forecaster can really use."

When combined with radar and other satellite data, this data should help forecasters anticipate heavy rain and issue flood and flash flood warnings sooner. In dry areas, especially in the Western U.S., information from the instrument will help forecasters, and ultimately firefighters, identify areas prone to wildfires sparked by lightning, NOAA said.

It "should revolutionize severe storm forecasting," Gasparrini said.

NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite, which orbits 22,300 miles above the Earth, was launched in November 2016. (GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite.)

The school bus-sized satellite, known as "GOES-R" when it launched and now by its new name "GOES-16," is in a "geosynchronous" orbit of the Earth. This means it hovers in the same spot above the planet, about 22,000 miles above the equator. It moves as the Earth rotates.

In addition to this lightning mapper, there are five other new instruments aboard the satellite that will generate new or improved meteorological, solar and space weather products, NOAA said.

USA TODAY


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