Dodging the worst, GOES-R is ready for weather’s center stage

As of September, there had been 12 disastrous weather and climate events this year in the United States, with losses exceeding $1 billion each, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

This was before Hurricane Matthew. The estimated economic losses due to the storm that hit Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina after devastating Haiti will likely be in the billions. Reverberations from the destruction and insurance claims will be felt for a long time.

GOES-R is in a clean room at Astrotech in Titusville, Florida, undergoing final preparations for launch. Credit: NASA

GOES-R is in a clean room at Astrotech in Titusville,
Florida, undergoing final preparations for launch. Credit: NASA

One of the consequences of the storm was felt in the weather community. The country’s newest weather satellite was waiting for launch in a clean room near the Kennedy Space Center, and for a nervous while, it looked like there was a real threat to it, ironically from the exact type of storm it was designed to better predict. Matthew didn’t hit the Florida coastline as hard as some thought it might, and the satellite survived unscathed in a building designed to withstand Category 4 hurricane conditions. The eye ended up 3040 miles offshore, but there was enough damage to launch facilities to cost millions of dollars and delay the Nov. 4 launch of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R).

The forecast challenge presented by Hurricane Matthew was not atypical. Meteorologists can tell us the general direction and timing of a storm, but often have a tough time pinpointing where a storm will have the biggest impact. Called the edge problem, this is meteorologists’ biggest challenge, according to The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.

Fortunately for GOES-R and for many along the Florida coast, the forecasters were wrong this time, but when the new satellite is operational, they will have a better chance of being right. It isn’t hyperbolic to say GOES-R will be a game-changer for meteorology because it will help address the edge problem.

GOES-R will define storms in more detail and more frequently than ever before. The resolution will be four times better, allowing meteorologists to see more detail. The addition of 11 spectral bands will make it possible to know more about clouds, moisture, the makeup of a hurricane’s winds, seasurface temperature and other contributing storm factors — similar to adding taste, smell and sight to sound and touch to better understand the environment surrounding us. Scan rates will be five times faster, while allowing updates as frequently as every 30 seconds.

These improvements are all part of the formula to help the country save lives and provide economic benefits from improved forecasting — billions of dollars over the course of a decade when GOES-R is operational. This figure comes from the report entitled “An investigation of the Economic and Social Value of Selected NOAA Data and Products for Geostationary Operational Satellites.” The report examined economic benefits from improved forecasts of hurricanes and tropical storms, temperature, precipitation, volcanic ash and other variables, and applying better information to four economic sectors: aviation, energy, agriculture, and recreational boating.

Higher-quality data to assess hurricanes will reduce forecast errors by 15 percent, according to NOAA. This will make it easier to make the right decisions to protect lives and property, and avoid unnecessary evacuations. Better information from GOES-R will also result in fewer unnecessary flight delays and cancellations, more accurate forecasts of energy demand, and the potential to save water with improved crop-irrigation efficiency.

In short, GOES-R has the potential to save thousands of lives and billions of dollars across numerous industries. Matthew has made us wait a little longer, but it will be worth it in the end. The good news is GOES-R dodged the worst, and is safe and ready for launch.

Eric Webster is vice president and general manager of Harris Corporation’s Environmental Solutions business, which built GOES-R’s main payload, the Advanced Baseline Imager, and the enterprise ground system that will fly the satellite constellation, and process and distribute all of the data.