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How Atmospheric Sounding Transformed Weather Prediction

Artist's rendering of the Nimbus-3 spacecraft.
In the late 1950's, NASA scientist Lewis Kaplan developed a groundbreaking way to calculate temperature in the atmosphere for weather forecasting.

Each day, weather satellites take hundreds of thousands of atmospheric soundings to gather data for forecasting. The groundbreaking idea of using this method dates to the late 1950’s, when Earth-observing satellites were a brand-new technology.

Scientist Lewis Kaplan, who worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, developed a way to calculate temperature in the atmosphere for weather forecasting: by measuring the vibration of molecules at different altitudes.

Fast forward 60 years, and the ideas that Kaplan laid out in his landmark 1959 paper entitled, “Inference of Atmospheric Structure from Remote Radiation Measurements,” remain at the heart of atmospheric sounding, the process by which instruments called sounders probe the sky vertically for details on temperature, moisture and water vapor, revealing subtle changes in the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA and NOAA have led the way in developing the technology for the sounders.

This image is an artist’s rendering of NASA’s Nimbus-3 spacecraft. Launched in 1969, it was the third in a series of meteorological satellites.

Image Credit: NASA