Europe is warming faster than any other part of the world, and its aging fleet of weather satellites has been falling behind the forecasting demands of the new era of unpredictable climate change extremes.
A new weather satellite, launched this week, will give Europe's meteorologists the right tools to keep tabs on unpredictable weather events, such as extreme summer storms and devastating floods, and help protect the continent's population amid the progressing climate crisis.
The spacecraft, the first of a new generation of geostationary weather satellites called Meteosat Third Generation (MTG), was developed jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT). Launched from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, atop an Ariane 5 rocket on Tuesday (Dec. 13), the satellite will monitor the entire European and African continents plus parts of Asia and the Middle East from a perch in geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above Earth.
The new satellite, MTG Imager 1, carries instruments that have not been available to European forecasters before, including a lightning detector that will improve monitoring of summer storms and an imaging sensor (opens in new tab) that will be able to observe Earth's atmosphere in greater detail than the previous generation of Europe's weather satellites. MTG-I1's full potential, however, will be unleashed only after its two siblings, MTG-S and MTG-I2, are launched in 2024 and 2026, respectively.
Once fully deployed, the MTG fleet will deliver much more frequent weather updates than the previous generation of Europe's weather satellites. That, weather forecasters said, will help issue timelier and more accurate alerts when extreme weather hits.
"The main advantage is that for Europe, we are going to get data every two and half minutes as opposed to every five minutes with the previous generation of satellites," Simon Koegh, the head of Space Applications and Nowcasting at British weather forecasting authority Met Office, told Space.com. "On that sort of timescale, we will get a very detailed picture in which, for example, we will be able to see summer storms develop, which frequently happens very quickly and which can drop huge amounts of intense rainfall in areas that are very vulnerable."
MTG-1, weighing 1.9 tons (1.8 metric tonnes) without its fuel, will help meteorologists keep track of such storms in multiple ways. By being able to resolve smaller cloud features, the satellite will virtually see the storms bubble up. The lightning detector will take things even further, detecting electrical activity in the clouds even before a storm reaches the size visible to the imaging instruments. As Koegh says, even small storms are capable of serious damage, and Europe's meteorologists expect to see many more of these storms than they did in the past.
"These storms may be fairly small scale but very intense," said Koegh. "They can contain hail, which is very damaging, and extremely strong wind gusts. And because of climate change, we will see more and more of these extreme and difficult to predict events. And that means an increasing burden on weather services."
While meteorologists won't be able to stop such storms from wreaking havoc on the ground, they will be able to issue more accurate warnings, which may prevent tragedies such as those of the summer of 2021. That year, a series of powerful storms dropped amounts of rainfall unseen in 1,000 years in parts of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. The floods triggered by those storms claimed nearly 200 lives.
MTG satellites will also improve detection and monitoring of wildfires from space, which are also set to become more frequent in Europe in the future as summer heatwaves become more severe.
The second MTG satellite, set to launch in 2024, will add an innovative instrument into Europe's weather monitoring toolbox that has not been flown on any geostationary weather satellite before. The instrument, an infrared sounder (opens in new tab), will measure the temperature and amount of humidity in various layers of Earth's atmosphere by detecting infrared, heat-carrying wavelengths of light. The sounder will provide constant measurements of the entire region visible from its position. This type of data, Koegh said, will help improve the accuracy of so-called nowcasting models, the type of weather forecasting models that predict weather for the next few hours.
The entire MTG fleet will produce 50 times more data than the current second generation of Europe's weather satellites, EUMETSAT said in a statement (opens in new tab). The constellation cost 1.4 billion Euros to develop and build, according to the BBC (opens in new tab). In addition, EUMETSAT member states will cover the cost of operating the fleet, which is expected to reach 2.9 billion Euros