New high-tech satellite to greatly help in the fight against Northwest wildfires

Suomi NPP satellite image taken on Sept. 4, 2017 picks up the light from the wildifre flames burning at the time in the Cascades. (NOAA Image)

A new NOAA weather satellite about to be launched by NASA will be so technologically advanced that it can spot a flashlight pointed into the sky - and forecasters hope it will become an invaluable tool to help discover and fight forest fires. And that's just the tip of the iceberg of what the satellite can do. Better long-range weather forecasts, ability to peer into soaking storms targeting the Northwest, and even helping crews detect power outages are some of the upcoming benefits.

The inaugural Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellite will launch on Nov. 10 and will be eventually followed by three more in the coming years. The satellites contain five state-of-the-art instruments and scientists and forecasters are giddy with what the new data the satellites will bring.

Some of this new technology already exists on a polar-orbiting satellite from another NOAA/NASA joint program called Suomi-NPP (National Polar-orbiting Partnership), which was originally launched as a research satellite in 2011, but became an operational global weather observing satellite in 2014. Forecasters have been using that satellite as a preview to what they'll be able to get with the new JPSS satellites.

The sensors include microwave bands and infrared sounders, which can detect atmospheric conditions, but perhaps the most impressive might be the "Day-Night" sensor that can detect extremely small areas of light.

"The sensor has a resolution of 375 meters, but within that pixel we can detect very small wildfires before they potentially become larger," said NOAA's Dr. Mitch Goldberg, JPSS program chief scientist. "Sometimes you have a really small fire that doesn't have much of a thermal signature and sometimes it's difficult to see, but with the day-night band, if you hold up a flashlight, we're going to be able to see it - it's very sensitive to light."

MORE | The Road To Launch - Preparing to launch America's newest weather satellite.

NOAA has been already providing that data to the U.S. Forest Service and the National Weather Service to help determine the location and size of wildfires.

But it's not just helping find the fires -- this enhanced data is giving forecasters a brand new tool in helping those affected by wildfires: smoke forecasts.

"We have an advanced technology imager that can also give us information on how hot the fire is instead of just showing where the fire is, and we've used that information in an advanced forecast model that predicts smoke," Goldberg said.

The model is still in its experimental stage, but it was helpful over this past summer as thick wildfire smoke spread across the Pacific Northwest, degrading air quality across the region including major population centers around Seattle, Portland, Spokane and Vancouver.

The JPSS team and the NWS were able to create maps showing predicted spread of smoke over the next couple of days. This first animation shows how the model predicted that thick smoke around the region on Sept. 7 would dissipate some on the next day:

And indeed, the smoke cleared a bit on the 8th -- check out how much less gray sat over Washington and Oregon a day later:

"And so we've been issuing experimental smoke forecasts using this model that has much higher space resolution than operational ones and we've been getting great feedback from the National Weather Service because they use that data to help them issue alerts in terms of smoke and visibility," Goldberg said.

Not just for wildfires

As you might imagine, the same sensors that can spot the flashlight from space can have some other benefits in natural disaster situations. Suomi-NPP has already helped out quite a bit during Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida.

"We can use day/night band to show the power grid outage in Florida," Goldberg said. "We've been working with FEMA, providing them power outage information because of course when there's no light, we don't detect anything. So we can compare them to images when all the power's on-- (showing them) 'this is what (the map) should look like.' "

In Texas, they're able to get detailed flooding information.

"We've also used the data for flood maps that we've been giving to FEMA, so FEMA's been really happy with the data we've been providing with Suomi-NPP, which is precursor to the JPSS," Goldberg said.

Ozone sensors on board help with monitoring ozone levels over the arctic and provide crucial data to help with public UV forecasts. And microwave sensors can help forecasters foresee major flooding events along the West Coast -- called "atmospheric rivers" (or locally, "Pineapple Expresses") by seeing through the clouds when they're traversing the Pacific Ocean to detect the amount of water vapor in those clouds.

"We really cut through the clouds by using a microwave," Goldberg said.

Or, perhaps helping ships stuck at sea. Last winter, a crabbing vessel got lost in the ice off Alaska.

"They knew where they were, but didn't know how to get out," Goldberg said. "They called the Coast Guard, which called the National Weather Service and with this day-night band (satellite) image, they were able to see the light on the ship and were able to guide the ship out of the ice field."

Better forecasts through better data

But the main purpose of the satellites isn't to look for flickers of flames or help wayward fishermen, it's to provide critical atmospheric data for weather forecast models. A model won't be very accurate if it can't tell what conditions are at the start of its calculations, and since we can't place weather observations at every spot on the planet, we rely on satellites to get the data for us.

"(The) most critical ones for weather forecasting are temperature and moisture, and there are two instruments on JPSS that provides global observations of atmospheric temperature and water vapor," Goldberg said. "It enables accurate forecasts out to seven days. If we didn't have polar orbiting satellites, there would be a significant degradation of the 3-to-7 day forecast. And that's really a major contribution by JPSS."

MORE | NOAA’s JPSS-1 Satellite Arrives in California for Launch

He mentioned that the forecast for Hurricane Irma was spot on from five days out.

"So when people do studies on what types of weather observations improve the forecasts the most, it turns out it's the temperature and water vapor -- which comes from microwave and infrared sounders (insturments) and both of them will be on the JPSS satellites," Goldberg said.

Goldberg referenced another study by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts whose model (informally known as the "Euro") did an outstanding job of forecasting the complex path Hurricane Sandy took before it made landfall into New Jersey in 2012.

"They went back and took out all the data that had been given from the polar orbiting satellites and re-ran the model," Goldberg said. "Without that critical data, the model erroneously predicted Sandy would have turned harmlessly out to sea."

4 Satellites In Tandem

Once the program reaches full strength, there will be four polar orbiting JPSS satellites orbiting 512 miles above the planet. Each satellite will complete about 14 passes a day with each orbit taking 101 minutes to complete. Two of the satellites will be on the same orbit, but staggered half way around the planet, allowing important overlap in observational coverage.

"So when the satellite flies over Seattle, 50 minutes later another satellite will fly over," Goldberg said.

The satellites will also provide the polar regions and Alaska with much better coverage on what's happening right now. NOAA has two main weather satellites called "GOES" that are geosynchronous, sitting parked over the equator and orbiting at the same speed as the Earth as to stay stationary relative to the planet and provide a consistent image. Their goal is to provide immediate and current weather information to forecasters (including very cool real-time lightning data! ) with the new GOES-16 satellite now giving a new image every 30 seconds! (A second updated GOES satellite to eventually be GOES-17 is on the way next year.)

The only problem is that the polar regions (and Alaska) are on the edges of those images, making it difficult to see.

JPSS will help solve those issues.

"Alaska right now will get about five good looks at their weather a day; when there's two in tandem they'll get 10," Goldberg said. And as you might have heard, weather tends to be pretty crazy at times in Alaska, so that will be a huge help!

While the first JPSS satellite will take about 9 months of testing before it goes into full operational mode, the data will be immediately provided to Alaska forecasters and available for the various weather forecasting models.

"(GOES and Polar orbiters) are really the two pillars of the satellite program -- (JPSS) to give information about what's happening next week and another is to tell you what's happening right now," Goldberg said. "So that's why those two programs are very critical."

But while the geosynchronous weather satellites get most of the public exposure, the polar orbiters are the unsung heroes of meteorology.

"A lot of the polar orbiting data you don't see - it's the person behind the scenes," Goldberg said. "But it's a part of the weather forecast enterprise and 85 percent of all forecast data used in weather models are from polar orbiting satellites, and that is really critical."

And about that opening line where I said monitoring wildifres was just the "tip of the iceberg" of what the satellite can do? It's a bit literal in addition to being figurative:

"We monitor polar ice," Goldberg siad. "Our JPSS satellites provide outstanding coverage of the poles."

New data should be coming in soon after the satelite's Nov. 10 launch. JPSS-2 is scheduled for 2022, with the last two scheduled for launch in 2026 and 2031.

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