Launched in November, the GOES-16 weather satellite is still being put through its paces, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already taking part in some cool science.
The new eye in the sky has beamed back zoomed-in images of clouds, water vapor, lightning strikes, and other events, all at a faster pace than any U.S. weather satellite before it.
On Tuesday, GOES-16 imagery came in handy for forecasters racing to keep up with an explosive weather situation that engulfed a roughly 1,000-mile stretch from the Texas panhandle to the dairy land of Wisconsin.
The experimental imagery from the new satellite enabled forecasters at the National Weather Service to determine which of the dozens of severe thunderstorms constituted the greatest risk for tornadoes on Tuesday.
In all, 25 tornadoes were reported, though this number may decrease as the Weather Service conducts damage assessments on Wednesday. (Typically the same tornado tends to be reported multiple times by different observers.)
At least two deaths have been reported from the severe weather, including at least one from what appears to have been an intense tornado near Elk City, Oklahoma.
GOES-16, which is so-named since it is in geostationary orbit around a fixed point above the planet, is able to take images at shorter intervals than previous generations of GOES spacecraft. This can be especially useful for severe weather forecasts, since tornadoes can develop and dissipate in just a matter of minutes.
But research shows that surges in lightning activity, as well as particular satellite characteristics, such as an “overshooting top” can be indicators of a storm that may be gearing up to produce a tornado.
This occurs when a thunderstorm has such a powerful rising current of air, known as an updraft, that the top of the storm busts through the flattened, anvil-like top of the storm and appears like a mushroom cloud on satellite imagery.
More severe thunderstorms are expected on Wednesday and Thursday as storm systems move out of the Rockies and into the volatile Plains states where boundaries are set up between cold and dry air to the west and warm and humid air to the East.
It’s is the heart of tornado season, which means these events are not a surprise. However, the wealth of data coming from GOES-16, albeit in experimental mode, is proving to be a boon to forecasters and researchers, who can’t wait for it to go fully operational in the coming months.