Watch: New satellite sees 2,500 lightning strikes over Northwest during May thunderstorms

Muntadher Alghanim

SEATTLE -- Those of you around the Puget Sound area on May 4th had a front row seat to witnesses some of the strongest thunderstorms recorded in the region in the past several years. The National Weather Service estimated around 2,500 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes as the storms moved through, with even a rare microburst and a number of Severe Thunderstorm Warnings issued.

A brand new satellite just launched into space also had a unique view of the thunderstorms -- and captured the event in a way that meteorologists had never been able to see before.

NOAA's GOES-R satellite is a quantum leap forward in technology from previous weather satellites and has several new features critical to increasing accuracy in weather forecast -- one of which is the ability to view lightning in near real time as seen from outer space!

Check out this time lapse video of the storm, courtesy of Lockheed Martin via NOAA and NASA. You can kind of make out the U.S. land mass -- we're of course in the upper left corner and be sure to watch in HD! Video spans from the afternoon of May 4 into the morning of May 5th:

Here's another view of our thunderstorms from a West Coast perspective:

The satellite's Global Lightning Mapper is the first operational lightning mapper flown in geostationary orbit.

"We can stare at all of the Americas and adjacent oceans and not just see the cloud-to-ground lightning, but also the lightning in the cloud that does not go to ground," says Dr. Steve Goodman, program scientist for NOAA's GOES-R Program. "And that's important, because that is more tightly related to the intensity of the storm. As the storms get taller and more intense... you tend to be dominated by in-cloud lightning, because the discharging is happening in the higher altitude of the clouds and we can see that very well."

Goodman says the satellite can also see lightning whether it's day or night.

"While your eyes can't see lighting in the daytime against bright clouds, this instrument does subtraction from image-to-image to look for changes in light output at cloud top," Goodman said. "And so that's how we're able to detect lightning during the daytime."

And they can also track where the lightning bolts are going -- also a big help in warning the public about a storm's danger.

"In a lot of these storms, especially the large, expansive cloud shields, the convecting storms themselves will put lightning out ahead of the storm anvil, and out the back of the storm," Goodman said. And people may assume falsely there's no risk of lightning strikes if they're not under the main convective part of the cloud. But lightning can travel 100-200 kilometers in horizontal distance and then go to ground -- and we can actually see that in the lightning mapper. So whether you're outdoors doing any kind of work or recreation or if you're at an airport tarmac where you've got fueling and baggage handling, lightning can travel many tens of kilometers and strike the ground, so it's not a no risk situation."

But it's not just lightning. The new satellite will give forecasters a way more detailed -- and frequent view of the planet's weather. The current satellites have 5 imagers; the new ones have 16. And the cameras has a four-fold increase in resolution, meaning details that are too small to be picked up by current weather satellites are now visible with GOES-R.

"That lets us see a lot of geophysical phenomenon we couldn't really detect before because we're looking at different wavelengths of light," Goodman said. "For example, wave clouds -- that is those you get over mountains and cause convective turbulence. (We can see) contrails from airplanes -- we could never see those before because we didn't have the spacial resolution before."

Visible items can now be seen as small as 500 meters across.

Plus, the imagery comes in much faster now -- a visible photo can be generated every 30 seconds as opposed to several minutes. And photos of the entire Western Hemisphere can be completed in 5-15 minutes as opposed to the current time of three hours.

More data for forecast models too...

Goodman says the most critical data needed for forecast models are what he calls "atmospheric motion vectors" -- essentially getting an accurate reading on current cloud and storm developments, how they're developing and where they're going. With the new satellite, they can take three images 5 minutes apart and calculate the intricate movements of the clouds.

"With the higher resolution, we're actually getting more accurate cloud height assignments," Goodman said.

The data is shared across the globe to other nations' meteorology centers and their respective forecast models, which should improve computer model forecasts globally as well.

And the data will help human forecasters get a better picture (literally) of current conditions around the planet and even can help approximate radar data in remote locations -- especially the new lightning data.

"If you're out over the ocean, say on a transoceanic flight or just running forecast models for the area ad you don't have radar data... combined data from the new satellite can give you a 'poor man's radar' that can help identify where convective turbulence might most likely be and intensity of the storms," Goodman said. "So the models use that, and forecasters themselves to know where developing convection is, and maybe the intensity of storms."

Better than advertised

I asked Goodman what has surprised him the most as he's been watching the new data flood in from the new GOES-R.

"The lightning mapper surprised me," he said. "With some of these long flashes, you can what looks like the structure of the lightning as it's propagating out across the cloud top -- and I was kind of surprised we saw that much detail."

He said the satellite also picked up the flash of a meteorite that ended up landing in Lake Michigan on Feb. 4.

"I think we're going to have plenty more surprises," Goodman said. "I think when you put up a new instrument, you get a 100-fold increase in the kinds of things you could do that you never planned on or envisioned at the very beginning. We've learned a lot"

The satellite is still in test mode as they work on data and positional calibrations. Right now, the satellite is parked over the center of the U.S., but will move in November to 75° West longitude, which will have it centered over the East Coast. Typically, the United States maintains two weather satellites -- one over the West Coast and one over the East Coast. NOAA announced in late May this satellite will go take the place of the current GOES-14 over the East Coast and once there and becomes operational, it will change its name from GOES-R to GOES-16.

A twin satellite GOES-S is scheduled to launch in March 2018 and will eventually become GOES-17 and take over for the current older GOES satellite sitting at 137° West Longitude over the West Coast.

In the meantime, NOAA will continue to make public some of the new features the satellite has captured -- although they warn that data is to be considered provisional until testing is complete and the satellite is officially christened into service.

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