New weather satellite will be a key tool in responding to wildfires |

New weather satellite will be a key tool in responding to wildfires

This is a GOES-16 Visible image from Hurricane Harvey; from a few hours before it made landfall at the southeast Texas coast.
Photo courtesy National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere |

As the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-16) prepares to officially be operational in December 2017, its capability to detect wildfires and the intense eyewall of hurricanes and other weather features grabbed the attention and fascination of 400 meteorologists who gathered Sept. 16-21 at the 42nd Annual National Weather Association conference in Garden Grove, Calif.

GOES-16 is considered a key tool in identification of wildfires. “It can assist with a more rapid response to aid in keeping a few fires small and better protect life and property,” said Meteorologist Chad Gravelle, Ph.D. and a GOES-R satellite liaison with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service Operations Proving Ground, Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies/Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In addition to tracking clouds, it also provides 384 vastly different looks per day of a nearly continuous location and intensity on a short-time scale.

“Although wildfires show up smaller than a pixel, a fire’s radioactive power and size is visible with GOES-16’s capability, using its reflected solar component,” said Jorel R. Torres, research associate, Joint Polar Satellite System liason at Colorado State University’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, based in Fort Collins.

“Although wildfires show up smaller than a pixel, a fire’s radioactive power and size is visible with GOES-16’s capability, using its reflected solar component.”

While the public has been able to see the GOES-16 being used provisionally since March 2017, especially during hurricane coverage, it will officially become operational this December.

“GOES-16, which covers the plains to the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean will replace GOES East,” said Jordan Gerth a research meteorologist with the University of Wisconsin. “Then, GOES-17 will launch in spring 2018 and will become GOES West six months later. GOES-16 offers crisper satellite pictures with sharper and more frequent imagery.”


Since radar coverage in southeast Colorado is challenged, with half of Pueblo’s National Weather Service coverage area being mountainous, and the other half in the plains GOES-16 is invaluable. “In addition to detecting wildfires, we rely on data from GOES-16,” said Meteorologist Bill Line, NWS Pueblo, during his presentation on Sept. 18. “You can see fog burning off which is beneficial for aviation and highways. GOES-16 can aid in tracking thunderstorms that may produce heavy rainfall, which leads to flash flooding.

Regarding this season’s powerful hurricanes, GOES-16 detects the internal dynamics of a hurricane’s eyewall; with the graduated “stadium effect” spiraling from its center.

While analyzing a massive plume of moisture during another presentation, Meteorologist Greg Carbin, chief of forecast operations at the NWS Weather Prediction Center based in College Park, Md., talked about the intensity of forecasting the staggering 50-inch rainfall event during Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas on Aug. 25.

“As we worked that event (in the days preceding it … )” Carbin said, “we looked at each other and wondered if it was really possible; to get 24 inches of rain, and then get another 24 inches in the Houston, Texas area. We had confidence in our forecast. It was an anomaly, and we communicated this was a challenge, and that people were about to experience something unprecedented.”

Houston and parts of southeast Texas were inundated with the predicted 50 inches of flooding rains.

Meteorologist Brian Norcross, who became a household name during his intensive coverage in Miami and the nation during the monster category five Hurricane Andrew on Aug. 24, 1992, said people need to prepare for the worst case even though it may not happen.

“Storms don’t always follow the generalization that they weaken after coming ashore, because in fact, Andrew re-strengthened as it approached the shore,” said Norcross, who has written a book titled “My Hurricane Andrew.”


A relatively recent global weather website from the Global Weather and Climate Center offers learning material about how to interpret satellite imagery, unusual cloud formations and energy that fuels hurricanes to help people prepare. “GWCC provides science content and provides support for what TV and other broadcasters are doing,” said Meteorologist Jordan Rabinowitz with

Also at the conference, meteorologists explained that preparations are in-progress for consolidating and simplifying the extensive colorful NWS weather watches and warnings on a map, with the goal of merging the current number of 124, down to 12 hazard categories. Simplified “watch/warning” language is expected to be released this fall.

“To simplify the watch or warning, it will read ‘WHAT’ and explain what the watch is about, then list the word ‘WHERE’ to detail the location, and then the word ‘WHEN’ with information about the timing,” said Eli Jacks, chief of the Forecast Services Division at the NWS headquarters.

Another presentation at the NWA conference detailed how meteorologists at the Storm Prediction Center are focused on timing to increase preparedness during severe weather. “We want to be increasingly specific and relay the exact severity and timing of any storms, to give people more time to prepare during severe weather. Whether they’re at work, have kids at school, or avoid being on the lake, it’s all about helping people be more prepared,” said Meteorologist Bill Bunting, SPC chief of forecast operations based in Norman, Okla.

Bunting said in addition to the Day 1 and Day 2 Convective Outlooks, the SPC will also provide a Day 3 Outlook more frequently, as needed to provide guidance on expected stormy days when they’re three days away.


Climate change was a hot topic at the conference.

“This topic is not going away,” said Meteorologist Sean Sublette with Climate Central, an organization of scientists and journalists that received a National Science Foundation grant in 2017 for “Climate Matters” in the classroom. A recent survey provided these results regarding how people are reacting to climate change:

18 percent are alarmed

34 percent are concerned

23 percent are cautious

5 percent are disengaged

11 percent are doubtful, and

9 percent dismiss it.

“Weathercasters and meteorologists are one of the most trusted voices about climate,” Sublette said. Climate Central, which started in 2010, launched a full-time program with 10 meteorologists in 2012, and a Spanish language “Climate Matters” program in 2014.

In a fascinating, final note, “Space Weather for the Modern Meteorologist” was an out-of-this-world topic at the NWA conference.

“Space is not just for astronauts anymore,” said Tamitha Skov, Ph.D., research scientist at the Space Environmental Effects Laboratory with the The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, Calif. Skov said activity from four types of solar phenomena affect earth including solar flares, solar storms, solar radiation and coronal holes. “Explosive growth occurred Sept. 3-10 when Hurricane Irma headed for the Florida Keys. There’s a very hungry public for space weather, as more and more technical advances are linked to space.”

— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at: