Let's Talk About: New satellites to improve tornado warnings

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There were 1,688 confirmed tornadoes in the United States last year. More than a quarter of those twisters struck in the South, where the hilly, forested terrain makes an approaching twister harder to spot than in the flat Midwest. Weather records also show that many of those rain-wrapped tornadoes often strike at night when they are especially harder to track and see. NASA and NOAA are now partnering to reduce the surprise of these killer storms by developing the next generation of weather satellites.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. These deadly storms often form when two different kinds of air masses meet, such as dry and moist air masses, or cold and warm air masses. When complex patterns of updrafts and downdrafts in the atmosphere are added, part of the base of the thundercloud begins to rotate and a tornado is born.

Most tornadoes look like a violently twisting funnel cloud, behind a shroud of heavy rain or hail. However, some may look more like a large low-lying cloud or even a large rain shaft. The sky can turn green, yellow or black as the typical tornado moves over the ground from nearly stationary to 70 mph, with deafening sounds similar to the rumble of a freight train. Their path can be erratic and suddenly change direction as they topple buildings and scatter debris.

The next generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites is scheduled to begin launching late in 2015. The "GOES-R series" weather satellites will have state-of-the-art instruments for improved scouting and tracking of these killer storms, even at night. With lightning detection from orbit and clearer pictures of cloud height, moisture and movement, the GOES-R satellites will improve meteorologists' ability to assess conditions that spawn tornadoes, and they are expected to give upward of 20 minutes lead time in tornado warnings.

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First Published May 17, 2012 12:00 AM


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