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Tracking Lightning From 22,236 Miles Above

Did you know that we were able to keep an eye on Monday’s derecho that moved through the Midwest not just on radar, but by using data from a satellite more than 22,000 miles above the Earth?

NOAA’s next generation satellite series, GOES-R, are equipped with a special instrument that’s able to detect and monitor lightning within storms across the entire United States called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM).  It’s the first of its kind that’s operational in geostationary orbit with a near-uniform spatial resolution of approximately 10 km.

Right now we have two watching over Earth — GOES-16 and GOES-17.

“They detect total lightning so that’s both intracloud and cloud-to-ground lightning throughout most of the Western Hemisphere, said Scott Rudlosky, a Physical Scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  “Since these new satellites launched, they’ve been helping weather service forecasters across the country to better diagnose the threat from lightning and also severe weather.”

This imagery is extremely important to forecasters during events like derechos.  A derecho is defined by the Storm Prediction Center as a widespread, long-lived wind storm associated with bands of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as bow echoes, squall lines, or quasi-linear convective systems.

“The forecasters that are watching the long line of thunderstorms, in this case, had to put out warnings for the entire line because of the hazards associated with it, but typically the lightning can help the forecasters clue in to what parts of that line are more intense,” Rudlosky said.


The measurements the GLM takes makes a difference in so many ways both with operational weather and aviation forecasts.  This also assists with adding lead time for preparing for all types of natural disasters from tornadoes to hurricanes to everyday thunderstorms all over the country.

“Lightning is important to track because of the threat that it poses to anybody that’s out in the field or out in their driveway for instance,” Rudlosky said.  “When you get a quickly intensifying thunderstorm, it indicates that you have a stronger updraft.  That stronger updraft actually leads to more charging and more lightning so forecasters can clue into these regions where they’re seeing a rapid uptick in lightning often termed a ‘lightning jump.’  That will give them extra confidence when issuing warnings that the storm is indeed intensifying.”

The GLM has also become a crucial tool to use when tropical systems are changing intensity.

“With the GLM providing as broad a coverage as it does, forecasters have started to note that not just how much lightning is occuring but where in the storm the lightning is occuring,” Rudlosky said.  “It provides very important insights into the future of the tropical cyclone.”

Want to learn more about the GLM? Check out more from NOAA and NASA here!



About the author
Meredith is a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist as designated by the American Meteorological Society.  She was born and raised in Cleveland but has worked from coast to coast covering almost every type of weather.  Meredith is a weather, space, and STEM journalist and has been live out in the field during destructive tropical storms on the Gulf Coast of Florida, raging wildfires in Southern Cali... Load Morefornia, and covered the wreckage from tornadoes in the Great Plains. In 2009, she reported on the damaging hail storm during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and in 2017, the historic California winter storms that produced record rain totals and devastating flash flooding.  Prior to joining WeatherNation, Meredith worked at KEYT/KKFX in Santa Barbara, CA, KOTA-TV in Rapid City, SD, WWSB-TV in Sarasota, FL, and began her career as an intern at WGN-TV in Chicago.  She was Santa Barbara's "Favorite Weathercaster of the Year" in 2016 and the Community Partner of the Year in 2017 for her volunteer work with Make-A-Wish Tri-Counties and awarded with the 2018 Valparaiso University Alumni Association First Decade Achievement Award. Meredith is the current chair of the American Meteorological Society's Station Scientist Committee, which focuses on raising greater awareness & outreach when it comes to science education for viewers.  She's also an accomplished journalist, producing weather and science stories including rocket launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base and the new GOES-16 satellite and it's impacts on weather forecasting.  Meredith was personally invited by NASA's Johnson Space Center to interview astronauts on the International Space Station and was the only meteorologist in the nation to do an exclusive report accompanying the GOES-West satellite from Colorado to Florida, reporting on and covering it's launch in 2018.  Meredith's also worked on features that took her paragliding along the coast, white water rafting in Northern California, learning to surf in the Pacific Ocean, and how to be an aerial photographer while flying a single engine plane! Say hi on Facebook, Twitter, & LinkedIn!

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