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Frequently Asked Questions
All of our original videos and animations are available to download in high resolution on the GPM Goddard Multimedia page.
Precipitation forms when cloud droplets or ice particles in clouds grow and combine to become so large that the updrafts in the clouds can no longer support them, and they fall to the ground.
A thunderstorm is formed when a combination of moisture and warm air rise in the atmosphere and condense. While over land, thunderstorms are most likely to occur at the warmest, most humid part of the day, which is usually the afternoon or evening. Over the ocean they are most likely to occur in the early hours of the morning before dawn.
Thunderstorms form when an air mass becomes unstable (when air in the lowest layers is very warm and humid, or air in the upper layers is unusually cold, or if both occur). Rising near-surface air in an unstable air mass expands and cools, making it warmer than its environment, which causes it to rise even farther. If enough water vapor is present, some of this vapor condenses into a cloud, releasing heat, which makes the air parcel even warmer, forcing it to rise yet again. Water vapor fuels the storm.
A tropical depression forms when a low pressure area is accompanied by thunderstorms that produce a circular wind flow with maximum sustained winds below 39 mph. An upgrade to a tropical storm occurs when cyclonic circulation becomes more organized and maximum sustained winds gust between 39 mph and 73 mph.
As rising water vapor condenses and latent heat is released, surrounding air is warmed and made less dense, causing the air to rise. The thunderstorms that make up the hurricane’s core are strengthened by this process. As air rises within the storms, pressure at the surface decreases and moister, tropical air is drawn to the center of the circulation, providing even more water vapor to fuel the hurricane. A hurricane has sustained wind gusts of at least 74 mph.
They are different names for the same type of storm, collectively known as tropical cyclones.
What they’re called is determined by where they form. In the Atlantic Basin and east of the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean, they’re called hurricanes. Typhoons form in the North Pacific Ocean, west of the date line. The storms are called cyclones in the Indian Ocean and in the Coral Sea off northeastern Australia.
Availability of water vapor and intensity of updrafts within a cloud determine the size of a raindrop. Larger drops tend to result from the vigorous updrafts within a thunderstorm and fall faster than smaller drops. Mist or drizzle produce smaller drops that fall at lower speeds.
Most hurricanes begin in the Atlantic as a result of tropical waves that move westward off the African coast.
Hail forms when thunderstorm updrafts are strong enough to carry water droplets well above the freezing level. This freezing process forms a hailstone, which can grow as additional water freezes onto it. Eventually, the hailstone becomes too heavy for the updrafts to support it and it falls to the ground.
The tropics receive a great amount of direct solar energy, which produces more evaporation than higher latitudes. The warm, moist air rises, condenses into clouds and thunderstorms, and falls back to earth as precipitation. More evaporation results in more precipitation.
The forecast of a hurricane's path is dependent upon the accuracy of the predicted winds from computer forecast models. The speed and direction of steering winds generally vary with altitude. Weak tropical cyclones tend to be steered more by lower-level winds, while upper-level winds usually influence the paths of stronger hurricanes.
Temperatures in the US are colder than they are near the equator, so air pressure is lower than it is in the tropics. Because wind flows counterclockwise around low pressure, winds usually blow from west to east, pushing weather systems to the east.
This important question is still under investigation. Much of the rain is produced by clouds whose tops do not extend to temperatures colder than 0° C. The mechanism responsible for rain formation in these "warm" clouds is merging or "coalescence" among cloud droplets, which are first formed by vapor condensation. Coalescence is probably the dominant rain-forming mechanism in the tropics. It is also effective in some mid-latitude clouds whose tops may extend to subfreezing temperatures. However, once a cloud extends to altitudes where the temperature is colder than 0° C, ice crystals can form and "ice-phase" processes become important. In favorable conditions, ice-involving processes can initiate precipitation in half the amount of time water-only processes would need. Hence, at mid-latitudes, cumulus cloud rain is probably initiated by ice-processes and melting of ice. Observations have shown, however, that precipitation can first appear at levels warmer that 0° C, where vapor condensation and coalescence are the main rain producers. Thus, precipitation may be initiated by either process.
Depending on their type, clouds can consist of dry air mixed with liquid water drops, ice particles, or both. Low, shallow clouds are mostly made of water droplets of various sizes. Thin, upper level clouds (cirrus) are made of tiny ice particles. Deep thunderstorm clouds which can reach up to 20 km in height contain both liquid and ice in the form of cloud and raindrops, cloud ice, snow, graupel and hail.
It is important to understand that even a cloud that looks impenetrably dark is almost entirely made of dry air. Water vapor and precipitation each make up a maximum of just a couple of percent of the mass of a cloud, except in a few very intense storms.
How do these precipitation particles form? First, tiny cloud droplets are born when the water vapor in the air is cooled and starts to condense around tiny "condensation nuclei" (particles so small they are invisible to the naked eye). The presence of these aerosols is crucial: without them, in absolutely clean air, condensation would not start until the relative humidity has reached several hundred percent (this suggests that the "saturation" level of 100% humidity is poorly defined; in fact, the atmosphere always contains more than enough nuclei of all sorts for condensation to start as soon as the dew point temperature is reached). The more particles there are in the atmosphere, the easier cloud droplets will be formed and the smaller they will be (since more particles will be competing for the same amount of water, so each one of them will attract less). This is why clouds over land have more droplets of smaller sizes than clouds over oceans where the air is generally much cleaner.
The process of ice formation similarly requires the presence of nuclei. However, there are much fewer particles which make suitable ice nuclei. This is why freezing often does not start until the temperature of the air reaches -15° C (if there are no ice nuclei at all, freezing will not occur before the temperature drops to -40° C). Hence, clouds with temperatures below 0° C can still consist of water droplets called "supercooled" water. These drops freeze immediately upon contact with any surface. When they fall to the ground as freezing rain, they can form a thin layer of sleet on roadways, an almost invisible and very dangerous hazard for drivers.
Measurement From Space
Precipitation is measured from space using a combination of active and passive remote-sensing techniques, improving the spatial and temporal coverage of global precipitation observations.
Reliable ground-based precipitation measurements are difficult to obtain because most of the world is covered by water and many countries don’t have precise rain measuring equipment (i.e., rain gauges and radar). Precipitation is also difficult to measure because precipitation systems can be somewhat random and evolve very rapidly. During a storm, precipitation amounts can vary greatly over a very small area and over a short time span.
Visible and infrared space-borne sensors can provide precipitation information inferred from cloud-top radiation, and microwave sensors provide direct precipitation measurement based on radiative signatures of precipitating particles. This type of information is not available through ground-based measuring systems. GPM will advance space-based measurement even further by combining active and passive sensing capabilities.
The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) is a joint mission between NASA and the National Space Development Agency of Japan. TRMM primarily measures tropical and subtropical rainfall and is the only current satellite that carries weather radar.
Climate, hazards, and the water cycle
Rising temperatures will intensify the Earth’s water cycle, increasing evaporation. Increased evaporation will result in more storms, but also contribute to drying over some land areas. As a result, storm-affected areas are likely to experience increases in precipitation and increased risk of flooding, while areas located far away from storm tracks are likely to experience less precipitation and increased risk of drought.
A flash flood is a rapid rise of water along a stream or low-lying urban area. Flash flooding occurs within six hours of a significant rain event and is usually caused by intense storms that produce heavy rainfall in a short amount of time.
Densely populated areas are at a high risk for flash floods. Buildings, highways, driveways, and parking lots increase runoff by reducing the amount of rain absorbed by the ground. This runoff increases potential for a flash flood.
A landslide is the movement of rock, debris, or earth down a slope.
A drought is a period of unusually persistent dry weather that continues long enough to cause serious problems such as crop damage and/or water supply shortages.
The water cycle (or hydrologic cycle) is the path that water follows as it evaporates into the air, condenses into clouds, and returns to Earth as rain, snow, sleet, or hail.
Water molecules are heated by the sun and turn into water vapor that rises into the air through a process called evaporation. Next, the water vapor cools and forms clouds, through condensation. Over time, the clouds become heavy because those cooled water particles have turned into water droplets. When the clouds become extremely heavy with water droplets, the water falls back to earth through precipitation (rain, snow, sleet, hail, etc). The process continues in a cyclical manner.
The water cycle is extremely important process because it ensures the availability of water for all living organisms and regulates weather patterns on our planet. If water didn’t naturally recycle itself, we would run out of clean water, which is essential to life.
Tornadoes and hurricanes appear to be similar in their general structure. Both are characterized by extremely strong horizontal winds swirling around the center, strong upward motion dominating the circulation with some downward motion in the center. The tangential winds far exceed the radial inflow or the vertical motion, and can cause much damage. Hurricanes always rotate counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere (clockwise in the southern), the direction of their rotation being determined by the Earth's rotation. This is almost always true of tornadoes too, although on rare occasions "anticyclonic" tornadoes spinning in the opposite direction do occur (tornadic circulation is determined by the local winds). This is where the similarities end.
The most obvious difference between tornadoes and hurricanes is that they have drastically different scales. They form under different circumstances and have different impacts on the environment. Tornadoes are "small-scale circulations", the largest observed horizontal dimensions in the most severe cases being on the order of 1 to 1.5 miles. They most often form in association with severe thunderstorms which develop in the high wind-shear environment of the Central Plains during spring and early summer, when the large-scale wind flow provides favorable conditions for the sometimes violent clash between the moist warm air from the Gulf of Mexico with the cold dry continental air coming from the northwest. However, tornadoes can form in many different circumstances and places around the globe. Hurricane landfalls are often accompanied by multiple tornadoes. While tornadoes can cause much havoc on the ground (tornadic wind speeds have been estimated at 100 to more than 300 mph), they have very short lifetimes (on the order of minutes), and travel short distances. They have very little impact on the evolution of the surrounding storm, and basically do not affect the large-scale environment at all. Hurricanes, on the other hand, are large-scale circulations with horizontal dimensions from 60 to well over 1000 miles in diameter. They form at low latitudes, generally between 5 and 20 degrees, but never right at the equator. They always form over the warm waters of the tropical oceans (sea-surface temperatures must be above 26.5° C, or about 76° F) where they draw their energy. They travel thousands of miles, persist over several days, and, during their lifetime, transport significant amounts of heat from the surface to the high altitudes of the tropical atmosphere. While their sporadic occurrence prevents them from drastically impacting the large-scale circulation, they still affect it in ways which must be accounted for and need to be better understood.
Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) is an international satellite mission to unify and advance precipitation measurements from space for scientific discovery and societal applications.
GPM measures precipitation globally; over the land and ocean, in both the tropics, mid-latitudes, and cold locations near the poles. GPM measures both light, heavy, and frozen precipitation including the microphysical properties of precipitation particles. This wide range of locations and precipitation types presents a host of challenges not encountered by TRMM, which only measures moderate to heavy rainfall in the tropics.
GPM's predecessor the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) measures heavy to moderate rain over tropical and subtropical oceans. GPM provides advanced measurements, including coverage over medium to high latitudes, improved estimates of light rain and snowfall, advanced estimates over land and ocean, and coordination of radar and microwave retrievals to unify and refine precipitation estimates from a constellation of research and operational satellites. GPM also provides more frequent observations, every 2 to 4 hours.
GPM data is primarily used by operational forecasters, but the information also benefits numerical weather prediction models, climate prediction patterns, crop monitoring, and other research applications. In addition, scientists use GPM data to advance our understanding of precipitation and its role in the Earth's environment.
The increased sensitivity of the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar (DPR) and the high-frequency channels on the GPM Microwave Imager (GMI) enables GPM to improve forecasting by estimating light rain and falling snow outside the tropics, even in the winter seasons, over areas which other satellites and ground sensors are unable to measure. These advanced measurements extend current capabilities in monitoring and predicting hurricanes and other extreme weather events, as well as contributing to improved forecasting for floods, landslides, and droughts.
The GPM Core Observatory satellite launched on February 27th 2014 at 1:37pm EST. It launched from Tanegashima Space Center, Japan, on a Japanese HII-A rocket provided by JAXA. Watch the launch video.
GPM advances precipitation measurement capability from space using a combination of active and passive remote-sensing techniques. These measurements are used to calibrate, unify, and improve precipitation measurements from a constellation of research and operational satellites with microwave sensors in order to create a global dataset of precipitation measurements.
The primary GPM instruments are the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar (DPR) and GPM Microwave Imager (GMI). The DPR makes detailed 3D measurements of rainfall, while the GMI uses a set of 13 optimized frequencies to retrieve heavy, moderate, and light precipitation measurements.
GV activity is designed to support pre-launch algorithm development and post-launch product evaluation. There are be a series of pre and post-launch field campaigns to carry out validation activities. Learn more about GPM Ground Validation.
GPM can help numerical models predict some aspects of chemical / biological / nuclear (C/B/N) agent dispersal and assess removal of these agents from the air by rainfall.
By providing four-dimensional measurements of space-time variability of global precipitation, GPM allows for a better understanding of precipitation systems, water cycle variability, and freshwater availability.
Weather satellites have been used by the National Weather Service since the sixties to map clouds, sea surface temperatures, and vertical temperature and moisture distributions. These data are supplemented by crucial ground observations, and are subsequently input to numerical models which try to predict the short-term evolution of the weather. The results are then made available to the public, most directly in the form of composite weather maps. The rain shown on these maps comes mostly from ground weather radars.
Unfortunately, the crucial ground observations are often simply not available over the tropics because these regions are typically inaccessible. In addition, the large-scale numerical models are still woefully inaccurate over the tropics, mainly because we do not yet have a solid understanding of the often severe dynamics which govern the circulation in the warm moist tropical atmosphere, and which have a determining effect on the weather far away from the tropics. The unprecedented precision of the TRMM measurements is replacing the missing ground measurements over the tropics, and it is helping fill the gap in our understanding of the processes which start around the equator but affect the weather all over the globe.
Usually up to the "freezing level", where the temperature has decreased to below 0° C (over the tropics, that occurs at about 5000 meters; over Los Angeles, it fluctuates between 2000 and 4000 meters in winter, and between 4000 and 5000 meters in summer). In different types of rain, there can be frozen water such as hail mixed with the rain below the freezing level, and/or "super-cooled" liquid drops above it.
In most storms, the TRMM radar is very good at detecting the freezing level. Unfortunately, it is not very good at discriminating between ice and liquid drops. The follow-on instrument will have separate channels to identify frozen, melting, and liquid particles, thereby providing very detailed information about the evaporative cooling and/or condensational heating released into the atmosphere by rainstorms.
Not really. Raindrops start out as round cloud droplets. As they grow and start falling, they begin to experience the resistance of the air, which causes them to flatten and resemble tiny M&M candy. Further growth leads to thinning in the center of the M&M, until the eventual breakup of the drop.
The flattening of raindrops alters the echo they produce when "illuminated" from the side. But for a space-borne radar such as the one on TRMM, the effect is minimal.
Drops vary in size from the tiny cloud droplets (measuring less than 0.1 mm in diameter) to the large drops associated with heavy rainfall, and reaching up to 6 mm in diameter. Collision among drops and surface instabilities are generally thought to impose this 6-mm size limit, although drops as large as 8 mm in diameter have been reported in shallow warm showers in Hawaii.
The reflectivity of a drop when illuminated by radar is roughly proportional to the square of its volume. It is this property which radar meteorologists exploit to estimate the total volume of rain from the reflectivity observed. This estimation process is rather difficult because the radar-rain relation is not linear, and the range of drop sizes within a single storm can vary greatly.
This question is tricky because some precipitating raindrops may not fall at all, if the surrounding wind has a sufficiently strong upward component. In still air, the terminal speed of a raindrop is an increasing function of the size of the drop, reaching a maximum of about 10 meters per second (20 knots) for the largest drops. To reach the ground from, say, 4000 meters up, such a raindrop will take at least 400 seconds, or about seven minutes.
The TRMM radar does not have the capability to measure the fall speed of precipitating particles. Its follow-on, however, will. This capability is important because it helps characterize the type of rain being measured.
Rain rates up to 400 millimeters per hour have been measured in particularly strong typhoons. However, even within the strongest storms, such high instantaneous rates are rarely sustained for periods longer than a minute, although a point on the ground can accumulate as much as 1800 millimeters per 24 hours during the passage of an exceptionally strong rainstorm. The TRMM mission is producing estimates of instantaneous rain rates as well as five-day totals of the accumulated precipitation over areas about the size of the Los Angeles basin. These will provide hydrologists, oceanographers and climate modelers with rainfall estimates that have an unprecedented accuracy.
Hail stones vary in size. Most commonly they are 1 cm in diameter but have been observed to be as large as 10 to 15 cm. Hailstones are formed when either aggregated ice ("graupel") or large frozen raindrops grow by collecting cloud droplets with below-freezing temperatures. An important aspect of hail growth is the latent heat of fusion which is released when the collected cloud water freezes. So much liquid water is collected in the process of hail growth that the latent heat released can significantly affect the temperature of the hailstone and make it several degrees warmer than the cloud environment. As long as the temperature of the hailstone remains below 0° C, its surface remains dry and its development is called "dry growth". The heat transfer from the hailstone to the surrounding air, however, is generally too slow to keep up with the release of heat associated with the freezing of the collected cloud drops. Therefore, if a hailstone remains in a supercooled cloud long enough, its temperature can rise to 0° C. At this temperature the collected supercooled droplets no longer freeze immediately upon contact with the hailstone. Although some of the collected water may be lost to the warm hailstone by shedding, a considerable portion can remain to be incorporated into the stone forming a water-ice mesh that is called "spongy hail". This process is called "wet growth". During its lifetime, a hailstone may grow alternately by the dry and wet processes as it passes through air of varying temperature. When hailstones are sliced open, they often exhibit a layered structure, which is evidence of these alternating growth modes. Hailstones need time to grow before they become too heavy and fall to the ground. An empirical relation between the fall velocity of a hailstone and its diameter is given by
V = 9 exp(0.8ln(D)) m/s,
where D is the diameter in cm. Hence a hailstone with a diameter on the order of 15 cm will fall at 75-80 m/s (170-180 miles/hour)!! This implies that updrafts of a comparable magnitude must exist in the cloud to support the hailstones long enough for them to grow. Because of this, hail is found only in very intense thunderstorms. Therefore, hail detection in storms is a clear indicator of their severity.
The TRMM radar can precisely determine the altitude where hail may be present, but the radar cannot say for sure if the signal is coming from hail, lots of graupel, or some other hydrometeor. The radar on the follow-on mission GPM will have specific channels which will detect frozen particles in general and hail in particular. This will provide crucial information about storm severity.