[ Watch the Video: Talking Tornadoes with Tim Samaras ]
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
On December 26, 2004, we learned of the importance that early warning systems can play in preventing loss of life when the great Indonesian tsunami caught locals and vacationers alike by surprise. In contrast, on March 11, 2011, the early warning system, while unable to prevent tens of thousands of human casualties, was effectively responsible for preventing a greater loss of life on the coast of Japan.
With seismological activity, it is far easier to assess data and predict the catastrophic consequences that may result. The most unpredictable strong storm events may, with the launch of a new satellite system, become easier to predict. The satellite, able to detect lightning within storm clouds, could quite possibly lead to marked improvements in tornado detection. The new technology being developed for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R) satellite may help to provide a type of early warning system for severe weather.
Currently, if one finds themselves in the path of a possible tornado, they typically have no more than 14 minutes to prepare and find cover. Both NASA and NOAA are hoping to improve severe weather detection in the hopes more lives and property might be saved. The team working on the new GOES-R system believes their efforts will make it easier to observe thunderstorm development with far greater spatial and temporal detail than has ever been achieved previously. As catastrophic weather events have no known specific season, the team believes that the technology contained within their GOES-R will be able to provide earlier warnings than before, regardless of the time of year.
Residents of the famed “Tornado Alley” used to be able to prepare seasonally for these destructive storms. Until only a few years ago, the bulk of tornadoes occurred in the spring and early summer months. However, this seems no longer to be the case. This was evidenced by a multiple tornado outbreak that occurred overnight on January 29 and 30 of this year. This winter-time outbreak produced several tornadoes across a wide swath of the United States, extending from the Mississippi River Valley all the way over to the Mid-Atlantic States. And again, last month, a series of tornadoes touched down in Mississippi. These storms were responsible for the destruction of 200 homes and multiple injuries.
GOES-R, part of a scientific collaboration between NASA and NOAA, will be the next generation of geostationary weather satellites. The team claims GOES-R will provide continuous imagery and atmospheric measurements of Earth´s Western Hemisphere. Additionally, the GOES-R will monitor space weather, as well. This new satellite will also become the primary method for detection and tracking of hurricanes and severe weather. GOES-R will aid in the improvement of applications and products that will fulfill NOAA´s goals of Water and Weather, Climate, Commerce and Ecosystem.
“These storms can spin up pretty quickly which limits warning lead-time,” said NOAA scientist Steve Goodman. “The radar and storm spotter´s view of tornadoes reaching the ground can be blocked by terrain, or visibility is very poor when the tornado is wrapped in rain. And it’s certainly more challenging for storm spotters to observe and confirm tornadoes occurring at night. Sometimes it’s just plain hard to come up with enough advance warning.”
The GOES-R, for the first time ever, will enable scientists to detect lightning within storm clouds. This ability will allow for better tracking of the development of potential storms, the direction they are moving, and their eventual intensification both before and during a severe storm event. Goodman claims this will help meteorologists to better predict oncoming catastrophic severe weather events.
“Based on the GOES-R research, there is a potential for greater accuracy and additional tornado warning lead time,” Goodman said. One significant advancement could help detect developing tornadoes at night to provide the public more time to get to safety.
The purpose of observing the lightning flash rate in a storm system is due to the correlation to impending tornadoes and severe storms. The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) of the GOES-R will possess the new capability to collect both day and night measurements of the frequent intra-cloud lightning activity noted to accompany many severe weather events. With this data, forecasters will be better enabled to identify and predict the intensifying storms before they present any severe weather on the ground. This earlier warning will allow meteorologists to issue more timely and accurate severe weather warnings.
“The majority of lightning is the in-cloud lightning and that’s difficult to detect, especially in the daytime,” Goodman said. “GLM will provide new information on lightning in the cloud that our eyes cannot see to allow forecasters to make an earlier determination of a severe and tornadic storms’ potential.”
Intra-cloud lightning activity will be only one of the lightning data points collected by the GLM. Additionally, cloud-to-ground and inter-cloud lightning activity will be measured. Due to the GOES-R placement over most of the Western Hemisphere, the satellite will be able to effectively assist meteorologists in the tracking of storms over both land and ocean from their inception.
The team recognizes, however, that lightning isn´t the only signifier of impending severe weather. For this reason, the GOES-R will also be outfitted with the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) which will assist in monitoring the overshooting cloud tops that are also indicative of severe storm activity. These overshooting cloud tops are dome-like clouds that are able to penetrate above the anvil of a thunderstorm. The detection provided by ABI will be able to recognize this activity which is indicative of a strong updraft.
With severe weather event prediction, timing is of the essence. The GOES-R imager will transmit updated weather conditions every 15 to 30 minutes. However, with ABI, the changing cloud and weather conditions will be transmitted every 30 seconds when it is set to its rapid scan mode. In times when ABI is not in its rapid scan mode, imagery over the US will be transmitted every 5 minutes rather than every 15 minutes. The team contends this will significantly increase the data available to weather forecasters.
As mentioned above, GOES-R will not cast its eye solely upon the Western Hemisphere. Space weather, along the lines of solar flares and geomagnetic storms that originate from the sun´s activity can affect spacecraft and human spaceflight.
To recognize these phenomena, the Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors will have the ability to detect communication disrupting solar flares. These solar flares have, in the past, been responsible for affecting power grids and can detrimentally affect satellites and air traffic. The Solar Ultraviolet Imager is designed to observe eruptions on the sun that may result in coronal mass ejections. Additionally, the Space Environment In-Situ Suite will be able to detect protons, electrons and heavy ion fluxes at geosynchronous orbit. This is important for the protection of astronauts and satellites from potential radiation hazards. The magnetic field in space will be measured by GOES-R´s Magnetometer.
The program, co-located at NASA´s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is managed by NOAA. GOES-R is staffed by an integrated NOAA-NASA program office organization. Additional support is provided by industry contractors. The team reports GOES-R will launch in late 2015.
[ Watch the Video: Talking Tornadoes with Tim Samaras ]