How Earth-orbiting satellites are tracking the 2020 hurricane season

While humans on Earth prepare for hurricane season, satellites in orbit are making their own preparations. 

This year's Atlantic hurricane season is ramping up as it enters its period of peak activity, which lasts from mid-August to late October. And, as Earth-orbiting satellites have already detected, it's going to be a doozy. 

"We were predicting an above average hurricane season," in terms of the number of named storms, Jim Yoe, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Weather Service, told 

It looks as though there is "an extremely high probability of having an active season," Yoe said. "The stage has really [been] set for having a lot of hurricanes for this year." In fact, he added, NOAA is currently "looking at two and possibly three little pre-storms out in the Atlantic basin, so you know that the season's getting kicking."

Related: No, we can't control hurricanes from space

So, why so many hurricanes? 

"The background conditions are really ripe for forming tropical storms and hurricanes," Yoe said about this year's active season. These conditions, he explained, include a really strong East African monsoon, higher than average water temperatures from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and low wind shear (wind shear means that the wind goes in different directions at different heights, which can stop a hurricane from growing.)

Organizations like NOAA use Earth-orbiting satellites to monitor weather and storms like hurricanes here on Earth. Among others, NOAA uses Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, or GOES, which orbit at the same speed of Earth's rotation 22,300 miles (35,888 kilometers) above our planet's equator.

"Our satellites give us a large-scale view" of the Earth that can see everything from the big to the small, Yoe said. He added that with these observations, scientists and forecasters can fully see the conditions in which hurricanes form. Yoe added that NOAA has recently made a number of enhancements and improvements to their existing satellites. 

For one, the imaging technology in the satellites is always improving, Yoe explained. "Think about our digital cameras and how much better they are, the sharper pictures we get today versus 20 years ago. So we see more details," he said. In improving imaging technology, hurricane prediction and tracking has also improved as that data is what allows researchers to fully understand how a hurricane is forming and moving. 

Satellites are also important for studying sea water temperature, Yoe said. "And, like I say, it's that hot water in the ocean that kind of fuels hurricanes," he added. "We look at the wind, we track the motions of clouds to see what the wind speeds and directions are, whether those are going to favor the formation and intensification of hurricanes as well."


Now, while hurricane season is intensifying in the Atlantic, NOAA is also tracking and monitoring a hurricane in the Pacific Ocean: Hurricane Genevieve. 

NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite (and, more specifically, the satellite's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS instrument) has been keeping an eye on the hurricane, which is currently a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, according to NASA

But, while Genevieve moved up the west U.S. coast to Baja, California, "the last time I looked I did not see it being a forecast to make landfall," Yoe said. 

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.