Almost one year ago, the Washington region took cover from the storm known as Snowzilla. Buried by three feet of snow in some places, roads and schools closed, and more than 6 million people hunkered down, waiting for the blizzard to pass.
Most people were safely at home when it happened, with a stocked fridge and flashlights in case of a power outage. They knew about the storm days before because of forecasters such as Chris Strong, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service who alerts public officials and the media whenever a tornado, hurricane or other natural disaster seems about to strike.
“We try to get the notice out there as early as possible to give people time to prepare,” Strong says. Soon, he adds, he’ll be able to alert people earlier than ever.
On November 19, one of the most advanced weather satellites ever built rocketed into space, where it will allow Strong and other forecasters to monitor the weather with increased precision.
By the time testing finishes — hopefully later this year — the satellite known as GOES-16 will be able to train its camera-like eyes on hurricanes brewing in the Atlantic Ocean or snowstorms bearing down on Washington.
Already, the satellite has taken its first images of the Earth’s atmosphere. The images are far more detailed than those taken by the previous generation of weather satellites. “It’s like going from black-and-white to high-definition television,” says Michael Stringer, who oversees the new, nearly $11 billion satellite program.
GOES-16 is part of a constellation of satellites that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses to keep the Weather Service informed about the latest changes in Earth’s atmosphere. By 2025, it will be joined by three other new GOES satellites (their name stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite), providing forecasters with a comprehensive view of weather in the Western Hemisphere and especially the United States.
Hovering at a single point some 22,200 miles above the Earth’s surface, GOES-16 will monitor lightning strikes and gather images that show volcanic ash, dust, clouds and water vapor in the atmosphere. The images will be gathered five times as fast as on the old satellites (GOES-16 will be able to take a new image of an individual storm every 30 seconds) and at four times the resolution. That will allow forecasters to calculate such details as wind speed and direction with greater accuracy than ever.
The satellite will also follow activities on the surface of the sun, where high-energy particles are sometimes ejected into space and can cause power outages and affect radio transmissions on Earth.
Stringer says the satellite, which is about 20 feet tall and weighed 11,400 pounds when it was launched, will be operational for the next decade. It uses radio waves to send its data to Earth — “sort of like a super-high-speed wireless broadcast” — where it’s received by 30-foot radio antennae on the roof of a NOAA facility in Suitland, Maryland. There, a team of five technicians from NOAA and NASA monitor the satellite’s every move.
From Suitland, images are sent to forecasters such as Strong, who works at a Weather Service office in Sterling, Virginia. He remembers being a kid in 1979 when an unexpected blizzard dropped more than two feet of snow on the region, shocking weather watchers who expected only a few inches.
“There was a lot less advance notice” back then, Strong says, and a lot more missed forecasts. We still can’t prevent bad weather, he says, “but we can prepare for it.”