GOES to monitor severe weather

In time for the start of hurricane season, which begins June 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to launch a weather satellite that will ensure that instant weather data is delivered to forecasters to provide more accurate severe-weather warnings.

The new Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-L will monitor hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, flash floods and other severe weather from 22,300 miles above the Earth. GOES-L is capable of hovering continuously over one position so that it can constantly watch a particular area for atmospheric events that trigger severe weather.

GOES-L, which will be called GOES-11 once it is in orbit, will help ensure the continuity of weather data, which is essential to provide better forecasts earlier, according to Gary Davis, director of the Office of Satellite Operations at NOAA. The new satellite will be launched May 15, but it will be stored in orbit until GOES-8 or GOES-10 needs to be replaced.

Those satellites most likely will need to be replaced soon, Davis said. GOES-8 is 5 years old, and NOAA turned GOES-10 upside-down and backwards to compensate for a problem with the satellite's equipment. The satellite, however, still provides necessary information, Davis said. GOES-9, which also is in orbit, can be used as a backup in an emergency, but the satellite is not reliable.

Two GOES operate in tandem at any given time, with one monitoring North and South America and most of the Atlantic Ocean, while the other monitors North America and the Pacific Ocean. The satellites can detect fires as small as an acre and can distinguish between ice clouds and water clouds, which is important information for aircraft in flight.

The data collected by the satellites are an essential piece of the National Weather Service's modernization program, said Jack Kelly, director of NWS. GOES provides forecasters the ability to forecast the track and intensity of a storm, which means more accurate forecasts, he said. "Without GOES we would not be able to do the job we do today," Kelly said.

Forecasters use data collected from GOES in combination with Doppler radar and sensor data to predict the weather. The Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, which serves as the cornerstone of NWS' modernization program, pulls all the information together and presents it to forecasters on one workstation.

The new technology has resulted in longer lead times for severe weather, Kelly said. Lead times for tornado warnings have tripled over the past 10 years to about 10 minutes. Lead times for flash-flood warnings have improved by 500 percent to an average lead time of about 50 minutes.

Marty Davis, the GOES project manager at NASA, which manages the GOES contract and oversees launch operations, said that while no major changes have been made to GOES-L, the satellite has been fine-tuned to operate more reliably.

Although NWS' modernization program may be nearing its end, "GOES-L shows us that it will never end. We will always try to force new science into operational use," Kelly said.

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