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Earth from Orbit: Hurricane Fiona Leaves Wake of Destruction

September 22, 2022

Hurricane Fiona, the first major (Category 3+) storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, has been wreaking havoc in the Atlantic, causing catastrophic damage across Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Turks and Caicos. The storm has caused devastating flooding and has damaged critical water and power infrastructure in its wake. 

Now, with sustained wind speeds of near 130 mph, Fiona is heading northward toward Bermuda as a Category 4 hurricane, where a Hurricane Warning is currently in effect. 

Tropical Storm Fiona first formed in the central Atlantic on Sept. 15, and passed just north of the Guadeloupe archipelago on Sept. 16, where one person was killed, as it entered the eastern Caribbean. On Sept. 18, Fiona strengthened into a hurricane as it approached Puerto Rico and made landfall later that afternoon along the island’s southwestern coast, 15 miles south-southeast of Mayaguez, with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph. The hurricane knocked out power to the entire island and left most residents without running water. More than 1,000 residents were rescued across the island, though four people were killed according to FEMA. 

Fiona made a second landfall in the Dominican Republic on Sept. 19, bringing heavy rains, flash flooding, and mudslides. The following day, the storm strengthened into a major Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale as it neared the Turks and Caicos islands, where it dumped heavy rains and triggered floods. On Sept. 21, Fiona strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane. 

As the storm continues north-northeastward, Fiona is expected to affect portions of the Canadian Maritimes as a powerful hurricane-force cyclone heading into the weekend, and significant impacts from high winds, storm surge, and heavy rainfall are becoming increasingly likely. 

NOAA satellites provide vital information for forecasting hurricanes and monitoring the location, movement and intensity of storms. The GOES-16 and GOES-17 geostationary satellites continuously view the entire Atlantic and eastern/central Pacific hurricane basins to provide real-time tracking and monitoring of tropical cyclones as well as the environmental conditions that cause them to form. 

By imaging a storm as often as every 30 seconds, these satellites help forecasters more easily discern the movement of cloud features and provide greater confidence in estimating the center of the storm. GOES-16 and GOES-17 also provide a detailed look at the storm properties of a hurricane, including cloud top cooling, central pressure, and convective structures as well as specific features of a hurricane’s eye, wind estimates, and lightning activity. This information is critical to estimating a storm’s intensity.

The Joint Polar Satellite System’s (JPSS) polar-orbiting satellites, Suomi-NPP and NOAA-20, capture data over each spot on Earth twice a day. They measure the state of the atmosphere by taking precise measurements of sea surface temperatures and atmospheric temperature and moisture, which are critical to securing storm forecasts several days in advance. JPSS instruments provide data that are particularly useful in helping forecasters predict a hurricane’s path 3 to 7 days out.