The Weather Channel's Use of Satellite Imagery

An In-Depth Interview with Dr. Steve Lyons

Note: This topic will also be addressed in the Spring issue of Imaging Notes in our regular column, Next-Gen Mapping. Also in that issue will be a feature story by Monica Hale at SAIC about the economic impact of better weather forecasts on the energy and financial services sectors.

Imaging Notes interviewed Dr. Steve Lyons, tropical storm expert from The Weather Channel, to understand how the Weather Channel uses I/RS to forecast, present, and disseminate information about weather. Dr. Lyons lives and breathes satellite imagery; he analyzes and translates a great deal of satellite imagery on a daily basis to advise TV viewers on the weather, offering critical information with uses that range from saving lives to allowing people to plan for trips and picnics.

Figure 1 is a view of Hurricane Dennis from July 10, 2005 off the coasts of Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. Here are on-air satellite images of Hurricane Dennis, with special Weather Channel enhancements we apply to bring out the important features associated with hurricanes/typhoons.
Figure 2 is The Weather Channel on-air color enhancement
Figure 3 is a Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite microwave image of Dennis.
Figure 4 is a visible satellite image of Dennis from NOAA. All of these images can be seen on TV.
Imaging Notes:
What do you see as the key growth drivers for I/RS data?

Weather Channel’s Dr. Steve Lyons: The world is three-fourths oceans and has very few “weather observations,” so you need satellite imagery to fill in the missing observations that allow you to predict weather patterns. There are a number of other drivers, including climate change applications, cost savings from better predictions, and improved forecasts that save lives and help prevent property loss. What we know about the future of weather patterns on land very often comes from their behavior over the oceans, where satellite imagery gives us special eyes to see them. Satellite imagery is a critical component of climate change and ozone hole analyses because we don’t have a huge network of observations—there aren’t enough ships and planes to cover the icebergs and the oceans. 

IN: How do you see The Weather Channel’s Internet site changing consumers’ relationships with weather, geo-data, and I/RS?

SL: Internet traffic is often for people trying to gather specific weather information that they need. For example, travelers can anticipate flight delays; some consumers are looking for weather learning information. Other users are looking for very specific weather conditions, such as snow depths at a specific ski resort. On another note, there are a lot of sites out there that have been put up by amateurs and kids with meteorology as a hobby. There’s some fun and interesting stuff out there, but users need to beware because those self-taught meteorologists may not always have correct weather information on their website. 

IN: WC has been innovative in incorporating satellite imagery into a business model. What new uses of satellite imagery do you foresee?

SL: As satellites improve, modeling and prediction will improve. Numerical models don’t like single dimension observations—as satellite information is incorporated into a numerical model, it improves the prediction. In 20 years, sensors will be able to get better estimates of how winds and temperature change through the depth of the atmosphere. Today, these data are very smoothed due to the limitations of the satellite sensors. In the future, there will be an ability to integrate satellite imagery with “super sensors” to get more accurate higher spatial and temporal data resolution, from the earth’s surface (ocean and land) to the top of our weather atmosphere (about 50,000 feet). The polar-orbiting scatterometer sensors we have today would be of far more value to meteorologists if they were on geostationary satellites. The technology is not there and may never get there, but without trying, we may never get there.

IN: How does the WC use I/RS to forecast, present, and disseminate information?

SL: I look at many different satellite image loops a day and analyze them by hand to make my forecasts. I couldn’t do my job without satellite imagery. Satellite imagery is the most important input for forecasting hurricanes and tropical storms. I believe satellite imagery has more information contained in it than does radar information. Without satellite imagery, global numerical model forecasts would be very poor and hurricane intensity models could not work. We have an in-house ocean wave model at The Weather Channel. To forecast a wave, I need to see ocean winds, and satellite imagery enables me to see those winds and hence forecast waves that can inundate the coastline. Once we’ve conducted our technical analyses, our challenge then becomes finding the right kinds of images to illustrate our predictions on air. 

IN: What do you see as your biggest challenge as the industry continues to evolve?

SL: Finding the time to analyze all of the available information. With more satellite platforms, there’s more information that takes more time to analyze. 

IN: We would like to thank Dr. Lyons for his dedication to weather forecasting and for sharing his enthusiasm for satellite imagery with us. The Web site is

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