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What do satellites see?

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Meteorologists have a lot of tools at our disposal for observing the weather. First and foremost, we have our own senses. Then there are rain gauges, thermometers, barometers, anemometers, hygrometers, weather balloons, and radars. All of which are very useful, but somewhat limited in what they can report. The tool that gives us an enormous amount of information, one which so many people take for granted these days, is the satellite.

We’ve all seen pictures taken from space of clouds spreading across the globe, and we know that we use satellites to track storms. Before the first one was launched in the late 1950’s, we only had the reports of sailors for getting information regarding where tropical storms were at sea. Those reports left a lot to be desired. Since the dawn of weather satellites, many lives have been saved by our ability to follow the movement and size of dangerous storms.

Satellites can help us track so much more than just the movement of clouds through our sky. They can show us volcanic ash plumes and smoke from forest fires - both of which can affect the weather of the region where they are located. We can watch lightning strikes from above the clouds (see image from NOAA below). They let us measure sea surface temperatures, as well as the size of ice sheets everywhere from the polar caps to the Great Lakes in winter. Pollution, city lights, and auroras can also be seen from their orbits.

Meteorology is still a relatively young science, and the amount of progress made in the ability to track and forecast the weather has grown exponentially since the first weather satellite was launched. As technology continues to improve and new satellites are sent into space, our knowledge and understanding will only increase.

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About the blogger

Like most meteorologists, Niki Morock has been interested in weather since she was a child. After earning a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from N.C. State University in 2007, Niki moved to Minnesota and worked at Weather Eye Radio Network as a broadcast meteorologist, doing daily, live call-ins to morning radio show hosts across the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains and covering severe weather as it happened. While there, she also volunteered as a Skywarn storm spotter trainer, teaching civilians and first responders how to identify parts of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes and how to call in storm reports to the National Weather Service. Niki is now the vice president of the Central North Carolina Chapter of the American Meteorological Society and a member of the national American Meteorological Society.