Thunderstorms can produce some pretty impressive light shows for us here on Earth, but spotting it from space can prove a tricky task. Determining exactly where lightning is striking the surface can give weather forecasters and scientists important insights into how storms behave, and that information is crucial to advanced warning systems. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a shiny new satellite called the GOES-17 orbiting the planet right now, and it’s equipped with a powerful tool for detecting lightning strikes.
The satellite’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) offers forecasters the ability to more accurately determine where storms are forming and where they’re headed, and NOAA just released an awesome video showcasing its capabilities.
“The mapper observes lightning in the Western Hemisphere, giving forecasters an indication of when a storm is forming, intensifying and becoming more dangerous,” NOAA writes in the video description. “Rapid increases of lightning are a signal that a storm may strengthen quickly and could produce severe weather.”
You can see in the video just how sensitive the tool is, and it’s able to map the presence of lightning that is oftentimes obscured from above by thick cloud cover. In this case, a storm rolls through the upper midwest on its way to the Great Lakes, gradually dying down before intensifying and transforming into a long bow-shaped storm front as it heads for the East Coast. Data from satellites like this is combined with other forecasting tools to build a more detailed picture of weather changes than has ever been possible before.
The mapper will be used to give storm watchers an early look at how dangerous a storm might become, allowing for more accurate warnings when intense lightning is present. When storms slow or stall it will be used to determine whether the storm is actually building strength or beginning to die out.
While this early video shows much of the middle of the US, Mexico, and the East Coast, it will eventually be positioned more to the west, offering a detailed look at much of the Pacific Ocean as well as a view of the Western US, according to NOAA.