The branch of meteorological science that uses meteorological sensing elements on satellites to define the past and present state of the atmosphere. Meteorological satellites can measure a wide spectrum of electromagnetic radiation in real time, providing the meteorologist with a supplemental source of data.
Modern satellites are sent aloft with multichannel high-resolution radiometers covering an extensive range of infrared and microwave wavelengths. Radiometers sense cloudy and clear-air atmospheric radiation at various vertical levels, atmospheric moisture content, ground and sea surface temperatures, and ocean winds, and provide visual imagery as well.
There are two satellite platforms used for satellite meteorology: geostationary and polar. Geostationary (geo) satellites orbit the Earth at a distance that allows them to make one orbit every 24 hours. By establishing the orbit over the Equator, the satellite appears to remain stationary in the sky. This is important for continuous scanning of a region on the Earth for mesoscale (approximately 10–1000 km horizontal) forecasting.
Polar satellites orbit the Earth in any range of orbital distances with a high inclination angle that causes part of the orbit to fly over polar regions. The orbital distance of 100–200 mi (160–320 km) is selected for meteorological applications, enabling the satellite to fly over a part of the Earth at about the same time every day. With orbital distances of a few hundred miles, the easiest way to visualize the Earth-satellite relationship is to think of a satellite orbiting the Earth pole-to-pole while the Earth rotates independently beneath the orbiting satellite. The advantage of polar platforms is that they eventually fly over most of the Earth. This is important for climate studies since one set of instruments with known properties will view the entire world.
The enormous aerial coverage by satellite sensors bridges many of the observational gaps over the Earth's surface. Satellite data instantaneously give meteorologists up-to-the minute views of current weather phenomena.
Images derived from the visual channels are presented as black and white photographs. The brightness is solely due to the reflected solar light illuminating the Earth. Visible images are useful for determining general cloud patterns and detailed cloud structure. In addition to clouds, visible imagery shows snowcover, which is useful for diagnosing snow amount by observing how fast the snow melts following a storm. Cloud patterns defined by visual imagery can give the meteorologist detailed information about the strength and location of weather systems, which is important for determining storm motion and provides a first guess or forecast as to when a storm will move into a region. Cloud
More quantitative information is available from infrared sensors, which measure radiation at longer wavelengths (from infrared to microwave). By analyzing the infrared data, the ground surface, cloud top, and even intermediate clear air temperatures can be determined 24 hours a day. By relating the cloud top temperature in the infrared radiation to an atmospheric temperature profile from balloon data, cloud top height can be estimated. This is a very useful indicator of convective storm intensity since more vigorous convection will generally extend higher in the atmosphere and appear colder.
The advent of geosynchronous satellites allowed the position of cloud elements to be traced over time. These cloud movements can be converted to winds, which can provide an additional source of data in an otherwise unobserved region. These techniques are most valuable for determination of mid- and high-level winds, particularly over tropical ocean areas. Other applications have shown that low-level winds can be determined in more spatially limited environments, such as those near thunderstorms, but those winds become more uncertain when the cloud elements grow vertically into air with a different speed and direction (a sheared environment). Wind
By using a wide variety of sensors, satellite data provide measurements of phenomena from the largest-scale global heat and energy budgets down to details of individual thunderstorms. Having both polar orbiting and geosynchronous satellites allows coverage over most Earth locations at time intervals from 3 minutes to 3 hours.
The greatest gain with the introduction of weather satellites was in early detection, positioning, and monitoring of the strength of tropical storms (hurricanes, typhoons). Lack of conventional meteorological data over the tropics (particularly the oceanic areas) makes satellite data indispensable for this task. The hurricane is one of the most spectacular satellite images. The exact position, estimates of winds, and qualitative determination of strength are possible with continuous monitoring of satellite imagery in the visible channels. In addition, infrared sensors provide information on cloud top height, important for locating rain bands. Microwave sensors can penetrate the storm to provide an indication of the interior core's relative warmth, closely related to the strength of the hurricane, and sea surface temperature to assess its development potential. Hurricane Tropical meteorology
Most significant weather events experienced by society—heavy rain or snow, severe thunderstorms, or high winds—are organized by systems that have horizontal dimensions of about 60 mi (100 km). These weather systems, known as mesoscale convective systems, often fall between stations of conventional observing networks. Hence, meteorologists might miss them were it not for satellite sensing. Hail Meteorology Precipitation (meteorology) Thunderstorm Tornado Weather forecasting and prediction