December 1, 2006 One hundred schools in 11 countries are participating in a program to help NASA calibrate the measurements from CloudSat, a remote-sensing satellite. Students record the type of clouds and meteorological they see on the ground, and their data is matched with the satellite's radar imaging, helping atmospheric scientists improve their weather forecasting models.
TIMNATH, Colo. -- For millennia, man has studied clouds from the ground looking up. Today, satellites orbit earth, sending back a cross section of cloud information from the inside out...
...But who's confirming the government's data collection? 10- to 12-year-olds! And the NASA scientists are relying on them. These elementary school students understand cloud formations with more accuracy than most adults.
Timnath Elementary School 6th grader Madison Hayes says, "Our job is to look up at the clouds and send in the data to tell them what is happening down on earth."
"Off to the north, there are altostratus clouds because we can tell that by there is a huge space on the horizon," says fellow 6th grader Ethan Lindhout.
The Colorado school is one of 100 schools in 11 countries providing NASA with cloud data through Colorado State University's CloudSat program.
Timnath Elementary School teacher Lynette Salzman says, "These are 10-year-olds. How many 10-year-olds would tell you that the sky was obscure or broken, and why and what that meant?"
Hundreds of miles away, NASA's CloudSat satellite orbits earth using radar to examine clouds from the inside out. The students use their ground data and cloud type references to confirm or reject the radar results.
CloudSat Scientist Richard Austin, of Colorado State University, says, "One way that kids help out is to do what we call validation activities. If we say there is a cloud over a given school, the kids can tell us: Were we right? Is there really a cloud there? Or what clouds are we missing?"
Possibly producing the next generation of meteorologists and atmospheric scientists...
"They become scientists," Salzman says. "They do the work. They are broadening their learning base beyond the classroom."
...And assisting in even more accurate weather forecasting in the future. Students record cloud cover, cloud type, temperature and precipitation data every 16 days, coinciding with the satellite overpass.
BACKGROUND: The CloudSat Education Network (CEN) is a network of about 100 schools and communities around the world that have signed up to help collect ground data for the CloudSat mission. The purpose is twofold: to develop an interest in earth science among students of all ages, while at the same time collecting ground-based data around the world to test the accuracy of the radar instrument. Currently, schools in Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, Oceania and the United States are participating.
WHAT IS CLOUDSAT: CloudSat is a NASA Earth System Science Pathfinder mission that uses Cloud Profiling Radar to study the insides to clouds, one of the least understood elements of the water cycle, in hopes of improving weather forecasting and climate models. Until now, there has been no practical way to measure the vertical structure of clouds over large areas. CloudSat scientists will compare student-generated ground-based data to the satellite's radar data to test the accuracy of the radar instrument.
ABOUT THE WATER CYCLE: The water cycle describes how water circulates from the land to the sky and back. The sun's heat causes water to evaporate into the air, and the vapor eventually condenses to form tiny droplets in clouds. When those clouds meet cool air over land, rain, sleep or snow results, returning the water to the land (or sea). The clouds that produce heavy thunderstorms in the winter are a form of cumulus clouds called cumulonimbus clouds. They form as moisture evaporates from the earth into the atmosphere, where the droplets congregate and jostle against each other. The air cools off rapidly with altitude. Sometimes a cold front – the boundary between where the cold air from one thunderstorm meets the air outside the storm for example – will force the moist air upward into the colder air. This moist air cools off and the water vapor "condenses" into liquid drops, forming clouds. The process continues: more and more water vapor turns into liquid, and the moist air warms up even more and rises higher and higher. A thunderstorm results.
TYPES OF CLOUDS: Most clouds are a combination or variation of three basic types. Stratus clouds are horizontal layered clouds that stretch out across the sky like a blanket, They often form at the boundary where a layer of warm moist air passes over a layer of cool air, causing the warm air to cool. If the warm air cools below the dew point, the excess water vapor condenses to form the blanket-like layer of stratus clouds. Cumulus clouds are puffy and look like giant cotton balls. The usually form when warm moist air is forced upward, cooling as it rises. Again, if it cools before the dew point, condensation will occur.