Atmospheric sounding

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Atmospheric sounding or atmospheric profiling is a measurement of vertical distribution of physical properties of the atmospheric column such as pressure, temperature, wind speed and wind direction (thus deriving wind shear), liquid water content, ozone concentration, pollution, and other properties. Such measurements are performed in a variety of ways including remote sensing and in situ observations.

Atmosphere The layer of gases surrounding an astronomical body held by gravity

An atmosphere is a layer or a set of layers of gases surrounding a planet or other material body, that is held in place by the gravity of that body. An atmosphere is more likely to be retained if the gravity it is subject to is high and the temperature of the atmosphere is low.

Atmospheric pressure, sometimes also called barometric pressure, is the pressure within the atmosphere of Earth. The standard atmosphere is a unit of pressure defined as 1013.25 mbar (101325 Pa), equivalent to 760 mmHg (torr), 29.9212 inches Hg, or 14.696 psi. The atm unit is roughly equivalent to the mean sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth, that is, the Earth's atmospheric pressure at sea level is approximately 1 atm.

Temperature physical property of matter that quantitatively expresses the common notions of hot and cold

Temperature is a physical quantity expressing hot and cold. It is measured with a thermometer calibrated in one or more temperature scales. The most commonly used scales are the Celsius scale, Fahrenheit scale, and Kelvin scale. The kelvin is the unit of temperature in the International System of Units (SI), in which temperature is one of the seven fundamental base quantities. The Kelvin scale is widely used in science and technology.


The most common in situ sounding is a radiosonde, which usually is a weather balloon, but can also be a rocketsonde.

Radiosonde meteorological instrumentation

A radiosonde is a battery-powered telemetry instrument carried into the atmosphere usually by a weather balloon that measures various atmospheric parameters and transmits them by radio to a ground receiver. Modern radiosondes measure or calculate the following variables: altitude, pressure, temperature, relative humidity, wind, cosmic ray readings at high altitude and geographical position (latitude/longitude). Radiosondes measuring ozone concentration are known as ozonesondes.

Weather balloon meteorological instrumentation

A weather or sounding balloon is a balloon that carries instruments aloft to send back information on atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed by means of a small, expendable measuring device called a radiosonde. To obtain wind data, they can be tracked by radar, radio direction finding, or navigation systems. Balloons meant to stay at a constant altitude for long periods of time are known as transosondes. Weather balloons that do not carry an instrument pack are used to determine upper-level winds and the height of cloud layers. For such balloons, a theodolite or total station is used to track the balloon's azimuth and elevation, which are then converted to estimated wind speed and direction and/or cloud height, as applicable.

Remote sensing soundings generally use passive infrared and microwave radiometers:

Infrared electromagnetic radiation with longer wavelengths than those of visible light

Infrared radiation (IR), sometimes called infrared light, is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) with longer wavelengths than those of visible light, and is therefore generally invisible to the human eye, although IR at wavelengths up to 1050 nanometers (nm)s from specially pulsed lasers can be seen by humans under certain conditions. IR wavelengths extend from the nominal red edge of the visible spectrum at 700 nanometers, to 1 millimeter (300 GHz). Most of the thermal radiation emitted by objects near room temperature is infrared. As with all EMR, IR carries radiant energy and behaves both like a wave and like its quantum particle, the photon.

Microwave form of electromagnetic radiation

Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths ranging from about one meter to one millimeter; with frequencies between 300 MHz (1 m) and 300 GHz (1 mm). Different sources define different frequency ranges as microwaves; the above broad definition includes both UHF and EHF bands. A more common definition in radio engineering is the range between 1 and 100 GHz. In all cases, microwaves include the entire SHF band at minimum. Frequencies in the microwave range are often referred to by their IEEE radar band designations: S, C, X, Ku, K, or Ka band, or by similar NATO or EU designations.

Radiometer device for measuring the radiant flux (power) of electromagnetic radiation

A radiometer or roentgenometer is a device for measuring the radiant flux (power) of electromagnetic radiation. Generally, a radiometer is an infrared radiation detector or an ultraviolet detector. Microwave radiometers operate in the microwave wavelengths.

<i>Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter</i> Space probe

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is a multipurpose spacecraft designed to conduct reconnaissance and exploration of Mars from orbit. The US$720 million spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin under the supervision of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The mission is managed by the California Institute of Technology, at the JPL, in Pasadena, California, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. It was launched August 12, 2005, and attained Martian orbit on March 10, 2006. In November 2006, after five months of aerobraking, it entered its final science orbit and began its primary science phase. As MRO entered orbit, it joined five other active spacecraft that were either in orbit or on the planet's surface: Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Express, 2001 Mars Odyssey, and the two Mars Exploration Rovers ; at the time, this set a record for the most operational spacecraft in the immediate vicinity of Mars. Mars Global Surveyor and the rover Spirit have since ceased to function. Opportunity has remained silent since June 10, 2018, and NASA declared its mission complete on February 13, 2019. As of that date, 2001 Mars Odyssey and MRO continue to remain operational.

Direct methods

Sensors that measure atmospheric constituents directly, such as thermometers, barometers, and humidity sensors, can be sent aloft on balloons, rockets or dropsondes. They can also be carried on the outer hulls of ships and aircraft or even mounted on towers. In this case, all that is needed to capture the measurements are storage devices and/or transponders.


A dropsonde is an expendable weather reconnaissance device created by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), designed to be dropped from an aircraft at altitude over water to measure storm conditions as the device falls to the surface. The sonde contains a GPS receiver, along with pressure, temperature, and humidity (PTH) sensors to capture atmospheric profiles and thermodynamic data. It typically relays these data to a computer in the aircraft by radio transmission.

Transponder device that emits an identifying signal in response to a received signal

In telecommunication, a transponder is a device that, upon receiving a signal, emits a different signal in response. The term is a portmanteau for transmitter-responder. It is variously abbreviated as XPDR, XPNDR, TPDR or TP.

Indirect methods

The more challenging case involves sensors, primarily satellite-mounted, such as radiometers, optical sensors, radar, lidar and ceilometer as well as sodar since these cannot measure the quantity of interest, such as temperature, pressure, humidity etc., directly. By understanding emission and absorption processes, we can figure out what the instrument is looking at between the layers of atmosphere. While this type of instrument can also be operated from ground stations or vehicles—optical methods can also be used inside in situ instruments—satellite instruments are particularly important because of their extensive, regular coverage. The AMSU instruments on three NOAA and two EUMETSAT satellites, for instance, can sample the entire globe at better than one degree resolution in less than a day.

Radar object detection system based on radio waves

Radar is a detection system that uses radio waves to determine the range, angle, or velocity of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. A radar system consists of a transmitter producing electromagnetic waves in the radio or microwaves domain, a transmitting antenna, a receiving antenna and a receiver and processor to determine properties of the object(s). Radio waves from the transmitter reflect off the object and return to the receiver, giving information about the object's location and speed.

Lidar A method of spatial measurement using laser scanning

Lidar is a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor. Differences in laser return times and wavelengths can then be used to make digital 3-D representations of the target. The name lidar, now used as an acronym of light detection and ranging, was originally a portmanteau of light and radar. Lidar sometimes is called 3D laser scanning, a special combination of a 3D scanning and laser scanning. It has terrestrial, airborne, and mobile applications.

Ceilometer meteorological instrumentation

A ceilometer is a device that uses a laser or other light source to determine the height of a cloud ceiling or cloud base. Ceilometers can also be used to measure the aerosol concentration within the atmosphere. When based on laser, it is a type of atmospheric lidar.

We can distinguish between two broad classes of sensor: active, such as radar, that have their own source, and passive that only detect what is already there. There can be a variety of sources for a passive instrument, including scattered radiation, light emitted directly from the sun, moon or stars—both more appropriate in the visual or ultra-violet range—as well light emitted from warm objects, which is more appropriate in the microwave and infrared.

Viewing geometry

A limb sounder looks at the edge of the atmosphere where it is visible above the Earth. It does this in one of two ways: either it tracks the sun, moon, a star, or another transmitting satellite through the limb as the source gets occultated behind the Earth, or it looks towards empty space, collecting radiation that is scattered from one of these sources. In contrast, a nadir-looking atmospheric sounder looks down through the atmosphere at the surface. The SCIAMACHY instrument operates in all three of these modes.

Atmospheric inverse problem

Statement of the problem

The following applies mainly to passive sensors, but has some applicability to active sensors.

Typically, there is a vector of values of the quantity to be retrieved, , called the state vector and a vector of measurements, . The state vector could be temperatures, ozone number densities, humidities etc. The measurement vector is typically counts, radiances or brightness temperatures from a radiometer or similar detector but could include any other quantity germain to the problem. The forward model maps the state vector to the measurement vector:

Usually the mapping, , is known from physical first principles, but this may not always be the case. Instead, it may only be known empirically, by matching actual measurements with actual states. Satellite and many other remote sensing instruments do not measure the relevant physical properties, that is the state, but rather the amount of radiation emitted in a particular direction, at a particular frequency. It is usually easy to go from the state space to the measurement space—for instance with Beer's law or radiative transfer—but not the other way around, therefore we need some method of inverting or of finding the inverse model, .

Methods of solution

If the problem is linear we can use some type of matrix inverse method—often the problem is ill-posed or unstable so we will need to regularize it: good, simple methods include the normal equation or singular value decomposition. If the problem is weakly nonlinear, an iterative method such Newton-Raphson may be appropriate.

Sometimes the physics is too complicated to model accurately or the forward model too slow to be used effectively in the inverse method. In this case, statistical or machine learning methods such as linear regression, neural networks, statistical classification, kernel estimation, etc. can be used to form an inverse model based on a collection of ordered pairs of samples mapping the state space to the measurement space, that is, . These can be generated either from models—e.g. state vectors from dynamical models and measurement vectors from radiative transfer or similar forward models—or from direct, empirical measurement. Other times when a statistical method might be more appropriate include highly nonlinear problems.

List of methods

See also

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