Science & Technology

See Amazing Footage of Winter Storm Grayson from NOAA's New Satellite

It's really, really hard to predict the weather. Besides the fact that even with the best predictions, tiny temperature fluctuations can have a huge impact on what happens (the butterfly effect, anyone?), current technology only allows us to accurately predict an oncoming storm with a handful of days' warning. But that technology is getting better. In December of 2017, GOES-16, NOAA's most advanced weather satellite ever, became fully operational. And when Winter Storm Grayson hit this week, it was the first time GOES-16 got to really show us what it can do.

Winter Storm Grayson from NOAA's GOES-16 Satellite. See below for the animated version.

Cold as Ice

During winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun completely stops shining anywhere above 66 degrees north of the equator, the area known as the Arctic Circle. Without the warmth of the sun, air in that region gets positively chilly. Usually, all that cold air stays put thanks to easterly flowing air currents in the upper layers of the atmosphere known as the jet stream. But for whatever reason, those air currents can change direction and bring the chill south.

The problem is that when cold temperatures meet warm temperatures, high pressures meet low pressures. Like a sci-fi villain being sucked out of a spaceship airlock, the cold, high-pressure air rushes toward the warm, low-pressure air, resulting in strong, freezing winds. And when you have a warm jet of tropical moisture coming up from the Caribbean via the Gulf Stream and a particularly low-pressure area in the upper levels of the atmosphere, as in the case of Grayson, you get a slew of creative weather names: bombogenesis, bomb cyclone, Nor'easter. They all mean the same thing: buy bread and milk and don't leave your house — this is gonna be doozy.


But while Grayson is bad news for the New England coast, it's exciting news for NOAA's fancy new gadget. After NASA launched it into geostationary orbit 22,000 miles up in November 2016, satellite GOES-16 became fully operational in mid-December 2017. Here's why it's so cool: it scans the planet five times faster than previous satellites, with three times the spectral channels (the ability to tell the difference between different elements of the atmosphere ), at four times the resolution. That gives us vivid footage like this.

That's spellbinding enough, but where GOES-16 really shines is in its spectral channels. You can check them all out on NOAA's GOES-East image viewer, but here are just a couple highlights.

Band 10 is devoted to detecting water vapor and the middle and lower portions of the atmosphere, along with high clouds. It's easy to see how much more information even a single band gives over the full-color footage.

Check out those colors!

Band 16 reads the temperature of the air in the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere. The colored areas are where the air drops below negative 30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). Dark blue is colder than turquoise, green is colder than that, and yellow is colder still.

The rapid scanning makes weather forecasts faster too. It can scan a single weather event in about 30 seconds, the entire U.S. in five minutes, and the whole globe in about 15 minutes. And the resolution makes it easier to pinpoint a storm's effects on individual regions. "With this kind of resolution, if you were in New York City and you were taking a picture of Wrigley Field in Chicago, you'd be able to see home plate," Eric Webster, VP of the company that built GOES-16's payload, told Wired.

The snow might be falling for New England, but the sun is certainly shining for science.

Written by Ashley Hamer January 4, 2018

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