March 27, 2022

The Beauty of Atmospheric Water Vapor

Meteorologists have no need to purchase artwork.

The reason is that imagery from satellites, radars, and numerical models is often stunning.  

Let me show you an example:  water vapor imagery from weather satellites.

Most of the satellite imagery you see on TV and the media uses wavelengths that DON'T show you the atmosphere.  Visible satellite imagery shows you how much solar radiation is reflected off clouds and surface.  Infrared satellite imagery tells you the temperatures of clouds and surface, based on how much radiation they emit.

But there are exceptions to this situation, and the most important is wave vapor imagery that displays the amount of radiation emitted by water vapor in the atmosphere.  Where the imagery is white, that means a great deal of moisture is in the upper troposphere (roughly 20,000-35,000 ft), where temperatures are relatively cool.  Dark shades indicate little upper-atmosphere moisture and plenty in the lower atmosphere.

We are ready....let's look at atmospheric art.  

Below is the water vapor image from Friday afternoon over the northeast Pacific.  Two beautiful swirls are evident....both associated with mid-latitude cyclones (low centers).  The dry dark areas are where dry air is sinking down behind and into the low centers.

Massive white areas to the east of the storms are associated with very moist, rising air.

Next, some tropical water vapor imagery on Saturday.  You can see tropical waves modulating the water vapor, with a huge striated intrusion in the lower southern portion of the image.  Stunning.  A weakening storm (swirl) is noted to the northeast.

Finally, let's look at the entire hemisphere. You an see the swirls associated with storms in the midlatitudes of both the northern and souther hemisphere.   But what REALLY sticks out are the bright light blobs in the tropics, associated with tall tropical thunderstorms.

So water vapor imagery is very pretty.   But there is much more.  Modeling output can be stunning..... such as the surface temperature forecasts for the UW WRF model (see below).

Someone should start an online weather gallery....perhaps a potent business idea.


  1. Cliff, the artwork I would like to see is a whole year of the 500mB height looking over the north pole.
    Does that video exist?

  2. I have used some GOES 17 imagery to promote my photography business. It's especially interesting when something is happening that can be seen from above and from below at the same time. Mountain wave clouds from the Olympics are one example I can think of.

  3. Thanks Cliff, very interesting!

    What are your thoughts on the latest predictions from the NOAA Climate Center for our upcoming weather? From the 6-10 day thru 3 month outlook NOAA is going for below normal temps and above normal-EC for precip. I know that you have said before to take anything > 10 days with a pinch of salt but usually when I check these predictions they lean toward the Above normal temps and less precip so I am interested to learn why this is the case and if its related to La Nina and/or Pacific ocean surface temps etc.


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