New NOAA satellite imaging allows unprecedented tracking of lightning strikes

Randall Craig
March 8, 2017

This image shows one hour of data.

The new "Geostationary Lightning Mapper" can detect both cloud-to-ground and cloud-to-cloud lightning strikes as well as all lightning over the oceans.

Lightning is not only unsafe, all on its own, but the amount and intensity of lightning from a storm can provide an early warning that the storm will turn severe, and possibly even develop a damaging tornado. The satellite is in fixed orbit over the Western Hemisphere including the United States. In January, we saw the satellite's first high-resolution images of Earth and the weather over North America.

The mapper spots lightning flashes in the western hemisphere, letting forecasters know a storm is brewing.

Since forecasters use this lightning information to issue warnings to the public about severe, potentially risky weather, the addition of GOES-16 to the suite of tools forecasters have at their disposal will very likely end up saving lives!

The newly released GLM image shows a view from February 14, when a number of storms popped up in the west.


The instrument is "a single-channel, near-infrared optical transient detector that can detect the momentary changes in an optical scene, indicating the presence of lightning", NOAA explains. The brightest storm system is located over the Gulf Coast of Texas, the same storm system in the accompanying video. In the video, the green dotted lines designate the Texas coastline.

The GLM can also show when thunderstorms stall or when they're becoming stronger.

With this information, in combination with radar and other satellite data, researchers can predict severe weather and alert the affected areas sooner than ever.

In dry areas of the country, the data can be used to help identify areas that can be prone to wildfires sparked by lightning.

It is also hoped that humans will one day be able to harvest the energy from space lightning, where a storm was measured as equal to one trillion lightning bolts.

The mapper detects in-cloud lightning, which happens five to 10 minutes before it could strike the ground while the ABI provides data and images in real time, as frequently as every 30 seconds.

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