People should go easier on meteorologists when they get the weather forecast wrong. Those guys are doing their best, OK? Plus, they’re dealing with some significant scientific handicaps. Even some of the most advanced like weather satellites in the world can’t reliably tell the difference between clouds and ice.
But that won’t be problem much longer. Last November, NASA launched GOES-16—NOAA’s next generation weather satellite—into geostationary orbit about 22,000 miles from Earth. On January 15th, it started to send back pictures. The new satellite images aren’t just pretty: Compared to the previous generation, GOES-16 has three times the spectral channels capturing images at four times the resolution, with five times the efficiency. Meaning scientists will have a whole lot more data to validate their weather and climate models, and a better chance to warn you when Mother Nature starts going rogue.
Being able to distinguish clouds, ice, fog, smoke, and ash seems pretty basic, but it isn’t. With GOES-13’s just five spectral channels, it all just looked, well, white. “When I saw those clouds, I just turned to someone and said, ‘Holy cow.’ It was jaw dropping for me,” says Steve Goodman, senior scientist for the GOES-R program (GOES-16’s name before the satellite reached orbit). “Now we’ll be able to figure out these cloud evolution processes better, and validate whether we’ve got these weather and climate models exactly right—which I’m willing to bet we don’t.”