New U.S. Satellite Aims to Unlock Mysteries of Hurricanes

By | August 20, 2015

Hurricanes hold lots of secrets.

Unlocking them can help forecasters predict the next steps the deadly storms will take.

That, in turn, will help improve computer forecast models and give meteorologists a better understanding of each system. As the forecasting community marks the 10th anniversary of the most active Atlantic season on record, the one that produced Hurricane Katrina, honing predictive abilities has become a major topic of conversation.

This year has seen new storm-surge warnings on National Hurricane Center forecast maps and the launching of drones from reconnaissance planes to measure conditions at the ocean’s surface. Starting sometime next year, when the GOES-R satellite is launched over the Atlantic along the eastern U.S., meteorologists will have a new suite of tools to help them unravel a hurricane’s mysteries.

Lightning is a good indication of future intensity, for instance, said Mark DeMaria, technology and science branch chief at the hurricane center in Miami.

“A lot of lightning strikes in the outer regions, and that’s a tip-off the storm has the potential to get stronger,” DeMaria said. A burst of lightning in the eye wall, near the center of the storm, signals that its growth is over.

The goal of hurricane forecasting is to get the track right and the intensity on target. The new tools don’t represent a “silver bullet,” DeMaria said.

“But it is a big step in the right direction,” he said.

Joint Effort

GOES-R, for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, is a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the hurricane center’s parent. It will be followed by GOES-S, which will cover the eastern Pacific.

DeMaria said the satellite will be a big improvement on the generation that tracked the storms in 2005, when the Atlantic produced 28 named systems. It won’t go into an “eclipse period” as the old ones did.

When the old satellite fell into the shadow of the Earth, it had to rely on battery power until it was back in the sunlight, DeMaria said. The problem was, the batteries didn’t last very long, so there were gaps of two or three hours in the information forecasters could gather.

On top of that, the satellites were most likely to fall into the Earth’s shadow during August and September, also known as the height of the Atlantic hurricane season. A new generation of batteries will be a cure for that.

‘Big Step’

“It seems like a trivial thing, but having those batteries is a big step forward,” DeMaria said.

The new GOES will also have lightning mapper to watch where a storm’s intensity is greatest. And it will be able to detect ozone levels, another sign a storm is strengthening, according to NASA-funded research conducted by Florida State University.

Last week, DeMaria tried out some other features, using the current generation of GOES satellite, on a budding storm off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The test produced one-minute imagery of the storm, later tropical depression 11-E, a feat the present satellite can only manage in small bursts. The new one will be even better.

GOES-R is one of four satellites — R through U — based out of Wallops Island, Virginia. The current budget is $10.8 billion.

While the 2015 Atlantic season limps along, the hope is the new technology will help forecasters be ready for the next season that rivals 2005.

“The model forecasts were pretty good, but they weren’t perfect,” DeMaria said. “Overall, if we would have had the new satellites then, it would have made the model forecasts more accurate. They may have had more confidence in what they were doing.”

And the storms would have held a lot fewer secrets.

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