The Quiet Revolution in Weather Forecasting

By John "Jack" Hayes, Ph.D., Vice President and Senior Account Manager for Environmental Solutions
Sep 14, 2016

The excitement is building over the first major technological leap in geostationary space observation for the Western Hemisphere—if not also for the world—since 1994. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) GOES-R mission will bring next-generation weather satellite capabilities to meteorologists focused on the Western Hemisphere, increasing their ability to warn citizens of developing severe weather. And this is due to two new instruments on board the satellite: the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) and the GOES-R Lightning Mapper (GLM). 

The ABI will allow forecasters to immediately observe developing weather with pictures every 30 seconds—a pace never before possible. The GLM data tool will enable forecasters to see—almost instantaneously—lightning activity associated with severe storms development. Together, the tools will help forecasters more accurately predict storm development and movement.

The launch of GOES-R highlights the revolution in technology and capabilities that has been quietly under way within the environmental science community. And revolution is not too strong a word; the technologies and capabilities industry is delivering are transforming the way society can anticipate and prepare for what it cannot prevent—severe weather.

A breakthrough for severe weather forecasting

Another important advancement resulting from the “weather revolution” is the exploitation for data from the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS). CrIS is the first U.S. operational hyperspectral sounding instrument. Operating in low-Earth orbit (LEO) on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, CrIS has already enhanced numerical weather prediction models with more accurate, detailed atmospheric temperature and moisture observations. This enables weather forecasters to more accurately predict areas at risk for severe weather events, like tornadoes and snowstorms, days, rather than hours, in advance.

What else we can expect?

Today our weather models can produce weather forecasts several days into the future with an accuracy that 30 years ago was possible only a day ahead. We can flag potential for major tornadic outbreaks three to four days in advance; issue threat alerts five to seven days ahead of a hurricane’s arrival; and deliver outlooks for spring flooding a month or more in advance.

Research and development efforts are continuing to target advancements that further increase the precision and accuracies for seven-to-10 day forecasts, and beyond. Ongoing research promises further improvement in the years ahead:

  • New technologies for geostationary and LEO hyperspectral atmospheric soundings that will allow forecasters to predict the formation and rapid intensification of storms—before the most modern radar.
  • Automated sensors that look up from the ground to provide complementary measurements of weather in the lower atmosphere where the weather we experience originates. 
  • Drones carrying weather instrumentation to fill in some of the critical information gaps.
  • LiDAR sensors from space that could produce wind measurements to complement temperature, humidity and pressure measurements

The rise in non-traditional data sources could also further move the needle in weather prediction capability:

  • Measurements provided continuously at local scales, such as traffic cameras, and mobile data from vehicles
  • Crowd-sourced weather observations from citizens in various forms (text, photos, videos) using Twitter and NOAA’s mPing
  • Micro-electro-mechanical systems that can immensely improve upper air measurements

A revolution indeed. And it’s just beginning.

Read more about Harris’ involvement in the GOES-R mission.