Friday, October 03, 2014
sponsored by

Technology Today Magazine:
It might not be the weather you want, but forecasts have improved
By Jim Youngquist

Send a link to a friend  Share

[October 03, 2014]  LINCOLN - Perhaps you hadn’t noticed that weather forecasting has become significantly more accurate and significantly more detailed these days. Forecasters at the National Weather Service can now pinpoint the temperature, wind speed and direction, and the chance of precipitation with reasonable accuracy as much as 10 days out. And the accurate prediction of approaching extreme weather has made our lives safer. Four pieces of current technology make all that possible.

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:

Weather Balloons

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.

Satellite Imagery

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 orbiting satellites.

Geostationary satellites are in very high stationary orbit, in sync with the movement of the earth, and watch weather patterns in a given region.

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.

Weather Radar

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 weather.

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.


[to top of second column]


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 every penny.

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.

Read all the articles in our New
Technology Today Magazine

Introduction to Technology Today 2
Are we living in the "Next Generation?" 4
It might not be the weather you want, but forecasts have improved 8
What's new in electronic entertainment:  More interconnectivity, and yet evolving 13
What we can probably expect in the next verstion of Microsoft Windows 18
Internet Technology:  The ups and downs of computing in the cloud 21

< Top Stories index

Back to top