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Opinion Satellites are the backbone of weather forecasts. Congress must vote to support them.

GOES-R will launch into space in November. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

This is part of a series of essays from leading researchers in the weather community on the importance of proposed congressional legislation in improving weather forecasts and their communication.

Steve Ackerman is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society and a recipient of NASA’s Exceptional Public Service Medal.

Satellites observe our planet’s weather from space — observations that are the backbone of weather forecasts. Without them, forecasters would not be able to monitor hurricanes, thunderstorms or blizzards. If we are to improve our weather forecasts, we must support our nation’s satellite programs. And there are two bills in Congress that intend to do just that.

The first successful meteorological experiment conducted from a satellite was launched 57 years ago this October. Today, we take for granted the bird’s-eye view of developing weather systems that satellites provide. Thanks to the Web and smartphones, anyone can access quality satellite images with just a few taps.

Satellite data help forecast the weather in two ways. First, expert forecasters interpret the satellite images. This analysis plays an important role in short-term forecasts that predict the weather over the next one to three hours.

Second, weather prediction models use observations to generate forecasts. While weather forecasters routinely analyze current satellite observations, most data never reaches forecasters’ eyes. Most satellite observations go directly into numerical weather-prediction models, which are more useful in 12-hour to four-day forecasts.

In fact, today’s weather forecast models rely on satellite data more than any other weather observation. These data include the vertical distribution of temperature and humidity, cloud distributions, land and sea surface temperatures, location of volcanic ash and wind speed and direction.

More than 120 U.S. instruments observe our planet from space. But future instruments will improve our ability to monitor and forecast storms — and in turn, save lives.

Furthermore, international collaborations organized through the World Meteorological Organization offer a powerful way to understand weather on a global scale. They have also shown us that the capabilities of the European and Japanese satellites exceed U.S. capabilities. While the GOES-R series will reduce this observational gap, we need to maintain U.S. leadership in weather satellites.

The first of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s four next-generation weather satellites will launch in November. It will provide cutting-edge capabilities, including an instrument to detect lightning and pinpoint thunderstorm locations.

These satellites, referred to as the GOES-R series, will view the Earth with 16 different wavelengths. Current satellites only measure in five. The satellite data will continuously take images of the Western Hemisphere every five minutes, as opposed to every 15 minutes. It can also take smaller, more detailed images of areas where storm activity is present as often as every 30 seconds.

This new weather satellite is a game changer — if it can survive the journey to launch

These observations enable careful tracking of developing storms and provide critical input to numerical weather prediction models. Most importantly, they will increase the warning times of severe weather like tornadoes.

The continued improvement of weather forecasting requires support of our nation’s satellite programs. Two bills making their way through Congress aim to provide that.

Sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Section Four of Senate Bill, S. 1331 — NOAA Satellite Management and Design — acknowledges the importance of satellite observations and the need to make the satellite portfolio of NOAA more robust.

Its counterpart, H.R. 1561, passed by the House as a bipartisan compromise, requires NOAA to prioritize weather research to improve weather data leading to better weather forecasts. It was sponsored by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.). HR 1561 also advocates for NOAA to purchase commercial satellite weather data, as one way to help reduce observational weather data gaps.

NOAA awards first-ever satellite data contracts to private industry

Prioritizing observation requirements is necessary to ensure weather forecasting capabilities, which provide current conditions and initialize weather forecast models. Equally important is a physical understanding of the atmosphere, which comes about through research and which needs to be supported through NOAA and other federal agencies.

A continuation of research programs that have led, and will continue to lead, to improvements in weather forecasting is critical. Improved computer capabilities enable the weather forecast models to reduce the spatial and temporal resolutions, which lead to better predictions. Accurate observations of current weather are needed before a predication is run.

We have much to learn about the vagaries of weather. One of the most important tools is a growing fleet of spacecraft dedicated to the task of watching and reporting on our skies. Support provided by the weather-focused bills currently in the Congress is a critical first step to making this happen.

Other essays in this series

How Congress could help weather forecasters reach more people and save lives