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

Posted March 07, 2017

The instrument is "transmitting data never before available to forecasters", the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said. That should also speed up warnings for severe storms and tornadoes. The brighter colors indicate more lightning energy, according to NOAA.

The mapper, the first lightning detector in a geostationary orbit, continually looks for lightning flashes in the Western Hemisphere. In the video above, you can see each lightning flash from a large group of thunderstorms located near the Gulf of Mexico on February 14, 2017.

NOAA's GOES-16 satellite, which orbits 22,300 miles above the Earth, was launched in November 2016. It can shoot 500 frames per second as it scans for lightning flashes in the Western Hemisphere.

Both cloud-to-ground and in-cloud lightning can be detected by the GLM.

It continually monitors the Western Hemisphere, looking for lightning flashes that indicate when and where a storm is forming, and if it will become more risky.

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The instrument can also show when a thunderstorm has stalled, or if it is gathering strength during heavy rains. The ability to monitor in-cloud lightning is important because it often precedes cloud-to-ground strikes by 5-10 minutes, giving meteorologists the ability to alert of the danger in advance, NOAA reports. Thus, by using the GLM to watch how storms grow and strengthen, weather researchers hope they'll be able to improve severe-weather forecasts and issue flood and flash-flood warnings sooner.

Moreover, accurate tracking of lightning and thunderstorms over the oceans, too distant for land-based radar and sometimes hard to see with satellites, will support safe navigation for aviators and mariners.

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. This means more precious time for forecasters to alert those involved in outdoor activities of the developing threat.

Scientists showed images from a new space weather tool today that will make tracking and evaluating lightning easier.

The GLM is operating aboard the GOES-16 satellite, which observes Earth from roughly 23,000 miles above the surface.