New satellites may lead to earlier tornado warnings

Tracking lighting inside clouds helps predict tornado formation

Earlier tornado warnings could help save lives. Photo courtesy NOAA.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — New satellite technology that can detect lightning inside clouds and track cloud formation may help weather forecasters develop earlier warnings for severe weather, especially tornadoes.

The national average for tornado warnings is 14 minutes. More time would give people in harm’s way a better chance to protect themselves, said the NOAA and NASA scientists working on the new GOES-R technology. The satellites will be able to monitor thunderstorm development with more temporal and spatial detail.

Most recently, a winter tornado outbreak resulted in tornadoes touching down in Mississippi, destroying 200 homes, damaging and causing injuries near Hattiesburg.

“These storms can spin up pretty quickly which limits warning lead-time,” said NOAA scientist Steve Goodman. “The radar and storm spotter’s view of tornadoes reaching the ground can be blocked by terrain, or visibility is very poor when the tornado is wrapped in rain. And it’s certainly more challenging for storm spotters to observe and confirm tornadoes occurring at night. Sometimes it’s just plain hard to come up with enough advance warning.”

For the first time, scientists will be able to detect the lightning occurring inside storm clouds, and thus better track how developing storms are moving and intensifying before and during the occurrence of severe weather, Goodman said, all of which will help meteorologists better predict weather disasters.

“Based on the GOES-R research, there is a potential for greater accuracy and additional tornado warning lead time,” Goodman said. One significant advancement could help detect developing tornadoes at night to provide the public more time to get to safety.

Studies show that a sudden increase in total lightning flash rate is correlated to impending tornadoes and severe storms. By taking continuous day and night measurements of the frequent intra-cloud lightning activity that accompanies many severe storms forecasters will be able to identify intensifying storms before they start producing severe weather on the ground.

“The majority of lightning is the in-cloud lightning and that’s difficult to detect, especially in the daytime,” Goodman said. “GLM will provide new information on lightning in the cloud that our eyes cannot see to allow forecasters to make an earlier determination of a severe and tornadic storms’ potential.”

The new satellite technology will also provide more continuous updates during the formation of a storm — every 30 seconds, as compared to the current 15 to 30 minute updates.

GOES-R will also monitor space weather, such as solar flares and geomagnetic storms that stem from the sun’s activity and can affect spacecraft and human spaceflight.

For more information about GOES-R and the current GOES satellite fleet, visit: and


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