Matching ISS Photos to Meteorological Observations during the Northeast Winter Storm from last week

This past weekend’s storm which brought record-breaking snow to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Corridor also brought something that gets the Earth Science Office at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) excited…lightning from the view point of a camera lens aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA Commander Scott Kelly (@CDRScottKelly) tweeted out this photo early Saturday morning from an overflight down the East Coast just before sunrise.

The corresponding satellite and lightning data show that the ISS camera captured a 4 stroke incloud lightning flash within the storm as the system pushed its way out to sea in the North Atlantic.


GOES East IR imagery from 0945 UTC on 23 January 2016. Red plus signs indicate the location of 4 incloud strokes as observed by the Earth Networks Total Lightning Network that represent the location of the flash in the ISS photo from Saturday.

Over the next year the weather enterprise will expand its capability to monitor lightning flashes from space in a similar manner to how the ISS captured this lightning flash. In the next year, two spaceborne lightning measurement instruments which NASA MSFC has played a major role in developing during many decades of hard work will be launched into space: the International Space Station Lightning Imaging Sensor (ISS-LIS) and the GOES-R Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM). These instruments will monitor energy from lightning flashes escaping the top of the cloud when a lightning flash occurs, utilizing a narrow oxygen emission line at 777.4 nanometers.

What does this mean for the public? Increased public safety and confidence in decisions which are affected by hazardous weather. Data from the ISS-LIS and GLM instruments will help scientists better understand the internal structure of all types of storms, helping develop better models for how storms grow, intensify and decay. Forecasters will be able to utilize flash rate information on storms acquired from these instruments to enhance severe weather prediction, determine where the heaviest snowfall rates are occurring in winter systems, or help reroute air traffic away from dangerous storms over the ocean. Most importantly, the ability to monitor the area of individual flashes will lead to better decisions on how to take shelter in an appropriate amount of time before the first lightning strike occurs in their area.

A special thank you to Mike Trenchard, Will Stefanov of Johnson Space Center for helping us acquire the ISS telemetry and camera information used to sync the meteorological observations with the lightning photo from Commander Kelly.

(Posted on behalf of the Earth Science Office)

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