NOAA's GOES-R weather satellite is transmitting the best lightning data meteorologists have ever had access to. The GOES-R was launched into space in November 2016. (YouTube/NOAASatellites)

Data is trickling in from NOAA’s new weather satellite that was launched late last year. In January, we saw the satellite’s first high-resolution images of Earth and the weather over North America. Now we’re getting to see the best lightning data a satellite instrument has ever produced.

Of course, this data is more than just gee-whiz neat — it can increase the lead-time on lifesaving severe weather warnings.

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (named for the fact that its home is on a satellite in geostationary orbit) was developed by Lockheed Martin and is mounted on the GOES-16 satellite. It continuously tracks and transmits all lightning strikes across North America and the surrounding oceans. The GLM can detect the changes in light on Earth and thus the rate and intensity of lightning in thunderstorms and hurricanes.

The instrument is “a single-channel, near-infrared optical transient detector that can detect the momentary changes in an optical scene, indicating the presence of lightning,” NOAA explains. In other words, it’s like a camera that is programmed to take a picture every time the near-infrared “scene” changes.

The mapper has obvious benefits to the National Weather Service and the meteorological community at large. Sudden increases in lightning activity within thunderstorms — which the lightning mapper will detect — often signal that they are becoming severe and violent. Local Weather Service meteorologists can monitor the data from the GLM to determine in real time if a storm is becoming severe and issue warnings sooner than they would have otherwise been able to.