7 Things You Didn’t Know About Weather Data
Have you ever wondered where your weatherperson or favorite weather sites are getting their information? How are they making their forecasts? Over the past several decades, weather-observing technology has allowed us to collect a wealth of information about the weather. All this data has helped scientists better understand, predict, and model the atmosphere. Here are 7 things you didn’t know about weather data.
Forecasting the weather would not be possible without weather satellites
The first weather satellite was launched 56 years ago, in 1960, revealing photos of clouds and weather systems approaching Australia. It was quickly apparent that these photos would be incredibly valuable in knowing where weather systems were headed, giving coastal communities advanced warning of impending storms. Since then, there have been massive improvements in the technology of weather satellites, and many new satellites have been launched into orbit, monitoring everything from hurricanes, El Nino, the ozone hole, tornadoes, and air pollution. Without satellites, the National Hurricane Center would not be able to study and predict hurricanes’ paths. Similarly, the National Weather Service is able to detect severe storms and provide ample warning time to people and property in its path.
There are about 3,000 satellites currently in orbit
And about 8,000 dead ones! There is so much “stuff” orbiting the Earth, that people are trying to find innovative ways to clean it up. However, satellites are still extremely valuable to our society, so we continue to send them into orbit. Weather satellites, in particular, allow a near-constant picture of the weather patterns and how they move around the globe. Not all satellites are made for observing the weather. Some satellites are used for communication, navigation (GPS), or military purposes.
Scientists monitor the weather in space every day
I know what you’re thinking: there’s weather in space? Yes! While there aren’t any hail or snowstorms in space, the weather occurs in the form of magnetic waves. Plasma will bubble and burst away from the sun and race towards Earth where it impacts our radio communication signals and satellites. These storms are called solar storms, solar flares, or coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and we can sometimes witness them in the form of aurora borealis (the northern lights). The largest solar storm ever recorded was also the first storm to be recorded in history on Sept 1, 1859. Vibrant aurora were visible as far south as Cuba, and the magnetic waves were so strong that they set telegraph systems on fire! Needless to say, this event made it extremely important to monitor space weather.
Weather balloons capture a complete picture of the atmosphere
Every day, twice a day, select locations around the world launch giant balloons with weather-measuring devices attached. As the balloon rises up, it measures temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction. This captures the general temperature and moisture structure of the atmosphere as well as the winds at various levels. Forecasters use this information to get a sense of the structure and stability of the atmosphere.
Computer models combine all sorts of data to help predict the weather
The science of meteorology has advanced dramatically, and we are now able to have computers predict the weather to some degree of accuracy (see our past blog post!). Computer models ingest data from multiple sources, including satellites and weather balloons, and use that information to predict what might happen in the next few days or hours. While there are slight differences between models, forecasters use the output from all of them to make informed predictions.
Weather radars can detect a tornadoes’ rotation
Weather radars send out a pulse in all directions. The pulse bounces off of droplets in the air which sends it back to the radar so it can record how far away the droplets are, and how fast they’re moving. Radars specifically measure how fast something is moving towards or away from the radar itself. A tornado would look like a small region of air moving quickly towards the radar right next to air moving quickly away from the radar, indicating a tight, but fast rotation. Forecasters use radar signatures to tell if a storm is likely to produce a tornado, and whether or not the rotation is getting stronger or weaker.
Only one company has automated hail detection technology.
In the past, the only way weather forecasters could tell where hail fell was from radar or reports from spotters. There’s even a network of volunteers tasked with reporting rain, hail, and snowfall at their specific locations across the US. However, there are a number of problems with these methods. First, radar is looking several thousand feet above the ground, not on the ground where it impacts us. Second, there will only be hail reports where there are people to report it! In order to more accurately understand the conditions that create hail, observations of hail are needed from all locations, both urban and rural.
Today, technology, developed by Understory, is capable of recording hail strikes in real-time (see our post about the March 23rd hailstorm in Dallas, TX). For each hailstone, we can now accurately measure the size, momentum, and angle that it impacted a weather station, providing an incredibly detailed dataset with which to understand and predict storms. This type of automated hail data has never been observed before and has revolutionized the way we look at the weather. Ultimately, we will be better prepared to predict weather-related hazards to people and businesses on the ground, where it matters most!
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