There are two different technological processes happening at the
National Weather Service: Data retrieval and data analysis. Several
different devices are used to retrieve the weather data:
Every day across the United States, a couple hundred weather
balloons are launched from various locations at different times a
day to gather weather information and radio it back to the weather
service. The balloon itself is about 5 feet in diameter and contains
helium to carry it up to about 100,000 feet above sea level. The
payload of the balloon is called a radiosonde, a shoebox sized
container of instruments that measure altitude, temperature,
barometric pressure and humidity, and a telemetry radio. Wind
direction and velocity can also be determined at various levels.
As it ascends, the radiosonde sends a continuous stream of data back
to the weather service computers which construct a three dimensional
picture of the weather conditions aloft. A typical weather balloon
setup costs a couple hundred dollars, and is designed for one-time
use. The information gathered by the weather balloon technology is
crucial to our understanding what is going on in the upper levels of
the atmosphere. What’s going on up there greatly impacts what’s
going on weather-wise down here.
Costing a great deal more than weather balloons, the National
Weather service has deployed two different kinds of weather
satellites to continuously monitor and gather information about
weather trends in the world: Geostationary satellites and polar
Geostationary satellites are in very high stationary orbit, in sync
with the movement of the earth, and watch weather patterns in a
Polar orbiting satellites are in lower orbit and can gather
information at much higher resolutions across all zones of the
earth. Between these two types of satellites, weather scientists can
watch all the weather conditions on the whole planet.
The satellites use both regular imagery and infrared imagery to
watch both conditions on the land and in the atmosphere. Satellites
primarily provide overview information about ground temperatures and
other conditions that contribute to weather, and atmospheric
temperature and humidity levels that contribute to weather.
Satellites track the movement of clouds and weather systems, giving
the “big picture” to weather forecasters and analysis equipment.
Almost all modern weather radar is Doppler radar, which is not only
capable of accurately determining where there is weather but also
the speed weather is happening.
All radar uses radio transmissions to determine the position of
objects. The objects weather radar looks for are dust particles,
rain drops, and even hail. It can differentiate these three things
because rain drops tend to be flatter, and hail larger than dust.
Doppler radar can determine where these objects are and which
direction they are moving and how fast they are travelling, as well
as the size of the objects.
While satellites gather macro information about cloud sizes,
patterns and directions, Doppler radar gathers micro information
about all the particles inside a cloud, where these particles are
located, which direction they are moving and how fast they are
travelling (thereby detecting wind speed). Doppler radar can
therefore detect in 3-D exactly what is happening inside a storm
system, and it is the most important tool weather scientists have in
gathering information about advancing storm systems and extreme
Doppler radar is used to detect and plot the location of what are
called vortices, which are particles that are moving in a circular
fashion. These vortices are the stuff from which extreme weather
like tornadoes and hurricanes often emerge.
The only thing that dampens the Doppler radar’s ability to
accurately form a picture of weather in any given area is another
recent technological device, the wind farm. Since there is a great
deal of movement in a wind farm with spinning blades, it impinges on
the radar’s ability to see in that area and in a line beyond it.
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Using all the information gathered by Doppler radar systems, weather satellites
and weather balloons, as well as amateur weather observers across the country,
powerful equipment is needed to gather all this information together and
“stitch” it into a coherent 3-dimensional weather picture of what is happening
in every city, village and countryside across the United States.
Powerful predictive tools are necessary to take all that information and
determine not only what is current but what patterns are present, what trends
are developing, and what probabilities are likely to accurately predict the
weather for the next 10 days.
The National Weather Service leased Twin IBM computers running linux in 2013 to
do this analysis. The Weather Service has been accumulating weather analyzing
and predicting software routines for years and they needed some of the most
powerful super computers on the planet to run their software on and data
through. These twin IBM computers are capable of analyzing 213 trillion pieces
of information per second (an average Macintosh or Windows computer processes
about 2.5 billion pieces of information a second). The data acquisition is
automated and the weather data is fed to the computers in a constant stream,
from which these amazing computers create a highly accurate three-dimensional
picture of weather across the country, not only for weather on the ground but
also weather aloft for aviation.
These computers cost the U.S. weather bureau $20 million per year and are worth
It is often said that the only thing that could make the reporting of weather
conditions even more accurate would be if the weather people would step outside
every once in a while.
Climate is the observation of long term weather patterns in a given location.
Weather is the most changeable thing on our planet, altered by the beating of
every butterfly’s wings, the cutting down of every tree, the changes brought
about on every parcel of land, and every movement and activity of the 7+ billion
people on the earth.
However, the biggest contributor to the weather on the earth is the sun, and its
output. The small changes in the sun’s output alter weather greatly.
Since the weather is always changing because of the many and varied influences,
the climate patterns are always changing. Studies have shown that climate
patterns appear to be cyclical, repeating weather cycles from the past. If
winters were bitter cold and snowy in your childhood, you are likely to see
winters like that again in your lifetime. If summers were hot and humid when you
were a child, you are likely to see those climactic patterns again in your life.
Should we worry about climate? The worrying won’t help but we should be aware
that what we do and the choices we make can influence the weather and the
conditions on this planet. Being careful stewards will not only pay off for this
generation, but for the coming generations as well.