NOAA's Lightning Tracker Makes Flashy Debut

A lightning strike as captured by NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren aboard the International Space Station. The strike was so intense, it briefly illuminated the station's solar panels. . (Photo: European Space Agency/Facebook)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's new GOES-16 satellite, launched last November, is continuing to surprise with the real-time data it's collecting on our ever-changing weather.

The latest on-board instrument to make its flashy debut for NOAA is the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), an advanced tool that will provide forecasters with unprecedented data on storm formation and intensity. Focused on the Western Hemisphere in geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles above Earth, the GLM is capable of capturing 500 images per second of developing storm systems.

"During heavy rain, GLM data will show when thunderstorms are stalled or if they are gathering strength," NOAA said in a press release. "When combined with radar and other satellite data, GLM data may help forecasters anticipate severe weather and issue flood and flash flood warnings sooner. In dry areas, especially in the western United States, information from the instrument will help forecasters, and ultimately firefighters, identify areas prone to wildfires sparked by lightning."

Unlike land-based radar stations and other weather satellites in orbit, the GOES-16 Lightning Mapper is capable of capturing high-definition images of bolts that strike the ground and move between clouds. The latter is particularly useful to forecasters, since in-cloud lightning often provides several minutes of warning ahead of deadly cloud-to-ground strikes. The instrument is expected to greatly improve warnings for mariners and aviators at sea.

You can see a real-time example of the lightning captured by GLM over southeast Texas on the morning of Feb. 14, 2017, in this video:

According to Lockheed Martin, which built the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, the instrument has already captured more lightning data in its first weeks than all previous lightning data from space combined.

"GLM is a first-of-a-kind capability for lightning monitoring at geostationary orbit," Jeff Vanden Beukel, Lockheed Martin GOES-16 instruments director, said in a statement. "Seeing individual lightning strikes from 22,300 miles away is an incredible feat, plus we're monitoring cloud-to-cloud lightning for the first time. All this will give forecasters better data to give people on the ground, at sea and in the air faster severe weather warning."

This image shows one hour of lightning data collected on the afternoon of February 14, 2017 by the GOES-16 Lightning Mapper.
This image shows one hour of lightning data collected on the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2017, by the GOES-16 Lightning Mapper. (Photo: NOAA Satellites/flickr)

NOAA expects initial testing and calibration of the GOES-16 satellite and its various instruments to be complete by November. Once operational, it will be renamed as either GOES-East or GOES-West.