Space & Innovation

NASA Snaps 3-D Pics of Weather From Space

Satellites capture 3-D pictures of raindrops and snowflakes, to measure their size and understand how storms work. Continue reading →

You might assume that all raindrops are the same, but scientists say that's not the case. And they now have the pictures to prove it.

Thanks to a research effort by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, researchers have taken the first 3-D snapshots of precipitation - both raindrops and snowflakes - from the vantage point of space.

The pictures were taken from the GPM Core Observatory, a satellite launched in 2014 that's a collaboration between the two nations. GPM's mission is to gain a better understanding of Earth's water and energy cycles and provide better forecasting of extreme events that cause natural disasters. The snapshots help further those objectives.

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"The drop size distribution is one of many factors that determines how big a storm will grow, how long it will last and how much rain it will ultimately produce," Joe Munchak,a research meteorologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a NASA press release. "We've never been able to see how water droplet sizes vary globally until now."

Clouds generate different sizes of water droplets, depending upon various factors. The cores of clouds at lower altitudes generally produce bigger raindrops, because they collide with each other and combine as they fall to Earth. On the edges of clouds and at higher altitudes, in contrast, make smaller droplets, which are less likely to combine. Scientists refer to the number of drops and snowflakes of different sizes at various locations within a cloud as the "particle size distribution."

That's important, because the ratio of large drops to medium or small-sized ones helps scientists to predict the amount of rain or show that will fall. According to Munchak, scientists used to be limited in such predictions, because of a lack of data.

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"Without knowing the relationship or the ratio of those large drops to the smaller or medium sized drops, we can have a big error in how much rain we know fell and that can have some big implications for knowing long term accumulations which can help with flash flood predictions," said Munchak.

Scientists created the 3-D images with data collected by the satellite's Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar (DPR). They also utilized the GPM Microwave Imager, which uses a set of 13 optimized frequencies to retrieve heavy, moderate, and light precipitation measurements at the Earth's surface.

This image shows how the size and distribution of raindrops varies within a storm. Blues and greens represent small raindrops that are 0.5-3.0 millimeters in size. Yellows, oranges and reds represent larger raindrops that are 4-6mm in size. A storm with a higher ratio of yellows, oranges, and reds will contain more water than a storm with a higher ratio of blues and greens.

The winners are in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "Weather in Focus" photo contest, picked from more than 2,000 entries taken between Jan. 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015. "From rainbows and sunsets to lightning and tornadoes, the winning photos aren’t just captivating to look at, but inspire us to look at the world in different ways," said Douglas Hilderbrand, NOAA's contest judge and Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador Lead. "It was difficult to pick winners from so many good entries." In first place, from the category "Science in Action," is "Green Bank Telescope in WV" by Mike Zorger, Falls Church, Va.

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All 16 winning images will be displayed in a

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exhibit located on the NOAA campus in Silver Spring, Md., starting in July. Second place in "Science in Action" went to "Photographer captures the aurora" by Christopher Morse, Fairbanks, Alaska.

In third place: "Atmospheric Research Observatory" by Joseph Phillips, Boulder, Colo.

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And honorable mention also went to Joseph Phillips, Boulder, Colo. for "Atmospheric Research Observatory."

In the category "Weather, Water & Climate," first place went to "Snow Express" by Conrad Stenftenagel, Saint Anthony, Ind.

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In second place was "Proton arc over Lake Superior" by Ken William, Clio, Mich.

"With a Bang" by Bob Larson, Prescott, Ariz., won third place in the "Weather, Water & Climate" category.

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Honorable mention went to Alana Peterson, Maple Lake, Minn. for "Raindrops on a Leaf."

A second honorable mention was won for "Fire in the Sky over Glacier National Park" by Sashikanth Chintla, North Brunswick, N.J.

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In the category "In the Moment," first place went to "Smoky Mountains" by Elijah Burris, Canton, N.C.

Second place went to "Spring Captured: Freezing rain attempts to halt spring" by Mike Shelby, Elkridge, Md.

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And third place went to "Rolling clouds in Lake Tahoe" by Christopher LeBoa, San Leandro, Calif.

Of course the professionals had their own category. First place was won by Brad Goddard, Orion, Ill., for "Stars behind the storm."

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Brad Goddard pretty much cleaned up this category, winning second (and third) place with "A tornado churns up dust in sunset light near Traer, IA."

Third place went for "A tornado crosses the path, Reinbeck, IA" by Brad Goddard.

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“Fog rolls in from the ocean on a hot summer day, Belbar, N.J.” by Robert Raia, Toms River, N.J., won honorable mention in the pro category.

To see all of the images on NOAA's website, go here.