10 Years After Katrina: Remarkable Advancements In Weather Satellites

Image Credit: NOAA

Image Credit: NOAA

August 24, 2015 – On August 28, 2005, the National Hurricane Center issued a public notice warning people in New Orleans of “devastating damage expected … power outages will last for weeks … persons … pets … and livestock left exposed to the winds will be killed,” from the ensuing Hurricane Katrina.

The storm had formed near the Bahamas and south Florida before becoming a Category 2 hurricane over the Gulf region northwest of Key West. Then, in two days, the hurricane’s winds almost doubled to 175 mph, creating Category 5 Hurricane Katrina— the most intense hurricane in the past 36 years.

By the time Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, the storm had lost strength but was still able to cause immense damage. Even though the destruction was high, the damage could have been worse if it were not for the forecasts. But no matter how accurate the track forecast, there are still mysteries to solve about hurricane behavior to further improve forecasting.

Researchers are particularly interested in improving forecast lead-time, track and intensity forecast, which are essential to plan successful evacuations. With its expertise in space and scientific exploration, NASA and NOAA provide help for essential services to the American people, such as hurricane weather forecasting. Satellites, computer modeling, instruments, aircraft and field missions provide valuable information to help scientists better understand these storms.

Since Katrina, researchers have made strides in understanding the inner-core processes and environmental factors that affect the path and intensity of a hurricane. When a hurricane strikes now, scientists have a better understanding of where it’s going and what’s going on inside it than they did in 2005.

More Data Input

In the past decade, NASA and agencies worldwide have significantly increased the number of sensors in space, on aircraft and on the ground to collect relevant hurricane data. NASA has numerous Earth observing satellites and many more satellite sources from worldwide partners. Since Katrina, NASA has also launched three field campaigns covering 5 hurricane seasons.

Satellites allow scientists to look within and at the environment surrounding hurricanes with a global perspective. Satellite data include sea-surface temperature, precipitation, surface winds and pressure, dust, atmospheric temperature and water vapor and more. Two satellites used to measure precipitation from space are the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission and former Tropical Rain Measuring Mission.

Field campaigns, on the other hand, gather more focused data on specific hurricanes by flying manned and unmanned aircrafts into the hearts of the storms. During HS3, NASA’s unmanned Global Hawk dropped small devices called dropsondes within and around storms while also collecting data on storm cloud tops and Saharan dust. The dropsondes collect information such as temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed and direction.

GOES Satellite Coverage

Operating from two primary locations, GOES-East and Goes-West, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) have been providing continuous imagery and data on atmospheric conditions, solar activity, and Earth’s weather systems for nearly 40 years.

Geostationary satellites orbit above the Earth at speeds equal to Earth’s rotation, allowing them to maintain their position and provide continuous coverage of one location. Image Credit: NOAA

Geostationary satellites orbit above the Earth at speeds equal to Earth’s rotation, allowing them to maintain their position and provide continuous coverage of one location. Image Credit: NOAA

The GOES program formally began on October 16, 1975 with the launch of GOES-1. The early GOES satellites were only able to view Earth about ten percent of the time.

GOES-R, the next generation of GOES satellites, is scheduled to launch in 2016.  Image Credit: NOAA

GOES-R, the next generation of GOES satellites, is scheduled to launch in 2016. Image Credit: NOAA

Following generations of GOES satellites added new capabilities. In the 1980’s, for example, GOES satellites acquired the ability to obtain vertical profiles of temperature and moisture throughout the atmosphere. This added dimension gave forecasters a more accurate picture of the intensity and extent of storms and allowed them to predict fog, frost, dust storms, flash floods, and the likelihood of tornadoes.

Each side of the image shows water vapor within Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, but at different resolutions. The left image is at a 50-km resolution, the resolution of most global models in 2005. The right image shows a 2015 version of the Goddard Earth Observing System model, Version 5 (GEOS-5), at a 6.25-km global resolution. Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Putman

Each side of the image shows water vapor within Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, but at different resolutions. The left image is at a 50-km resolution, the resolution of most global models in 2005. The right image shows a 2015 version of the Goddard Earth Observing System model, Version 5 (GEOS-5), at a 6.25-km global resolution. Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Putman

Now, with the next generation of weather observing satellites being developed at Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colorado, NOAA is poised to once again significantly improve weather forecasting and severe weather prediction.

The GOES-R satellite is scheduled to be launched in March 2016 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Once launched, the satellite will be known as GOES-16 and will immediately be placed in a test location at 89.5 degrees West longitude for an extended checkout period. During post-launch testing and extended validation, the GOES-R satellite will be operational, providing observations during the 2016 hurricane season. At the conclusion of the checkout, the satellite will be placed into either the East or West location depending on the health and performance of the other GOES satellites in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s constellation.

GOES-R represents a significant improvement over current GOES satellite observations and will provide higher-resolution images of weather patterns and severe storms five times faster than today, which will contribute to more accurate and reliable weather forecasts and severe weather outlooks. This increase in data production means satellite imagery of severe weather, like hurricanes and tornados, will be available in near real-time, giving forecasters even more tools to make timely warnings during a severe weather event.

GOES-R’s environmental data products will support short-term weather forecasts and severe storm watches and warnings, maritime forecasts, seasonal predictions, drought outlooks and space weather predictions. GOES-R products will improve hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts, increase thunderstorm and tornado warning lead time, improve aviation flight route planning, and provide data for long-term climate variability studies. Data will also provide critical information to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Providing data to support weather forecasting and monitoring Earth’s climate requires many types of satellites! The NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite and the future JPSS constellation will work in tandem with GOES-R to provide vital information in the face of severe weather events. Image Credit: NOAA

Providing data to support weather forecasting and monitoring Earth’s climate requires many types of satellites! The NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite and the future JPSS constellation will work in tandem with GOES-R to provide vital information in the face of severe weather events. Image Credit: NOAA

The GOES-R program is a collaborative effort between NOAA and NASA to develop, deploy and operate the satellites.