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How do I interpret infrared satellite pictures?


Clouds and atmospheric gases such as water vapor radiate infrared energy to space. The amount of energy radiated by clouds and gasses relates directly with its temperature. This relationship, know as the Stephan-Boltzmann Law, allows us to "see" clouds at night. The atmosphere generally cools with height. A cloud that radiates low energy is higher in the troposphere than a cloud that radiates higher energy. On a standard linear enhancement curve, bright white represent cold ice-crystal clouds, while clouds colored with light shades of gray are warm water filled clouds in the mid and lower troposphere. There are a number of enhancement curves that color pictures of clouds based on temperature. These curves accentuate temperature ranges that allow us to discern high clouds from mid and low clouds. At the bottom of every infrared image there is a key telling you the temperature range for that color. For example, on the infrared pictures provided on this web site, red represents cloud tops with a temperature of -40C which in a standard atmosphere is about 40,000 ft.

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