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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Snow White

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on new weather technology able to detect high-level clouds previously undetected by the average weather balloon.


CURWOOD: Just ahead, a few herbal recipes for loving. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.

[MUSIC: Science Note Theme]

CHU: Using a new technology they’ve nicknamed Snow White, researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have detected clouds high in the atmosphere that have, until now, been hidden from the average weather balloon. Their findings suggest that decades of climate data have underestimated the amount of cloud cover in the atmosphere.

Snow White is a state of the art humidity sensor that uses a chilled mirror and a light beam to measure water vapor. Researchers deployed a weather balloon outfitted with Snow White and two balloons with the standard humidity sensors used by most weather services. They sent the balloons six to nine miles up into the atmosphere. Data from Snow White found a thin layer of humidity, measuring 90 to 100 percent, suggesting the presence of cirrus clouds. The two average sensors only detected 30 percent relative humidity in the same region.

The existence of water vapor is rare in such a high and cold atmosphere, but researchers believe that even small amounts of water vapor and cirrus clouds can effect long term climate monitoring, and what they call the earth’s radiation budget. Layers of clouds act to trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The National Weather Service plans to revamp its weather balloons over the next four years. At this stage, however, their plans do not include Snow White.

That’s this week Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Jeff Friedman “I’m Ramblin’, Too” Slo and Lo - Accurate Records (2003)]



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