The data gathered from surface and upper altitude observations form the basis of all weather forecasts, advisories, and briefings. There are four types of weather observations: surface, upper air, radar, and satellite.
Surface Aviation Weather Observations
Surface aviation weather observations (METARs) are a compilation of elements of the current weather at individual ground stations across the United States. The network is made up of government and privately contracted facilities that provide continuous up-to-date weather information. Automated weather sources, such as the Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS), Automated Surface Observing Systems (ASOS), as well as other automated facilities, also play a major role in the gathering of surface observations.
Surface observations provide local weather conditions and other relevant information for a specific airport. This information includes the type of report, station identifier, date and time, modifier (as required), wind, visibility, runway visual range (RVR), weather phenomena, sky condition, temperature/dew point, altimeter reading, and applicable remarks. The information gathered for the surface observation may be from a person, an automated station, or an automated station that is updated or enhanced by a weather observer. In any form, the surface observation provides valuable information about individual airports around the country. Although the reports cover only a small radius, the pilot can generate a good picture of the weather over a wide area when many reporting stations are viewed together.
Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC)
The Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) facilities are responsible for maintaining separation between flights conducted under instrument flight rules (IFR) in the en route structure. Center radars (Air Route Surveillance Radar (ARSR)) acquire and track transponder returns using the same basic technology as terminal radars. Earlier center radars displayed weather as an area of slashes (light precipitation) and Hs (moderate rainfall). Because the controller could not detect higher levels of precipitation, pilots had to be wary of areas showing moderate rainfall. Newer radar displays show weather as three shades of blue. Controllers can select the level of weather to be displayed. Weather displays of higher levels of intensity make it difficult for controllers to see aircraft data blocks, so pilots should not expect air traffic control (ATC) to keep weather displayed continuously.
Upper Air Observations
Observations of upper air weather are more challenging than surface observations. There are several methods by which upper air weather phenomena can be observed: radiosonde observations, pilot weather reports (PIREPs), Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) and the Meteorological Data Collection and Reporting System (MDCRS). A radiosonde is a small cubic instrumentation package that is suspended below a six foot hydrogen- or helium-filled balloon. Once released, the balloon rises at a rate of approximately 1,000 feet per minute (fpm). As it ascends, the instrumentation gathers various pieces of data, such as air temperature, moisture, and pressure, as well as wind speed and direction. Once the information is gathered, it is relayed to ground stations via a 300 milliwatt radio transmitter.
The balloon flight can last as long as 2 hours or more and can ascend to altitudes as high as 115,000 feet and drift as far as 125 miles. The temperatures and pressures experienced during the flight can be as low as -130 °F and pressures as low as a few thousandths of what is experienced at sea level.
Since the pressure decreases as the balloon rises in the atmosphere, the balloon expands until it reaches the limits of its elasticity. This point is reached when the diameter has increased to over 20 feet. At this point, the balloon pops and the radiosonde falls back to Earth. The descent is slowed by means of a parachute. The parachute aids in protecting people and objects on the ground. Each year over 75,000 balloons are launched. Of that number, 20 percent are recovered and returned for reconditioning. Return instructions are printed on the side of each radiosonde.
Pilots also provide vital information regarding upper air weather observations and remain the only real-time source of information regarding turbulence, icing, and cloud heights. This information is gathered and filed by pilots in flight. Together, PIREPs and radiosonde observations provide information on upper air conditions important for flight planning. Many domestic and international airlines have equipped their aircraft with instrumentation that automatically transmits in flight weather observations through the DataLink system.
The Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) is an international program utilizing commercial aircraft to provide automated weather observations. The AMDAR program provides approximately 220,000-230,000 aircraft observations per day on a worldwide basis utilizing aircraft onboard sensors and probes that measure wind, temperature, humidity/water vapor, turbulence and icing data. AMDAR vertical profiles and en route observations provide significant benefits to the aviation community by enhancing aircraft safety and operating efficiency through improved weather analysis and forecasting. The AMDAR program also contributes to improved short and medium term numerical weather forecasts for a wide range of services including severe weather, defense, marine, public weather and environmental monitoring. The information is down linked either via Very High Frequency (VHF) communications through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) or via satellite link through the Aircraft to Satellite Data Acquisition and Relay (ASDAR).
The Meteorological Data Collection and Reporting System (MDCRS) is an automated airborne weather observation program that is used in the U.S. This program collects and disseminates real-time upper-air weather observations from participating airlines. The weather elements are down linked via ACARS and are managed by Aeronautical Radio, Inc. (ARINC) who then forwards them in Binary Universal Form for the Representation of Meteorological Data (BUFR) format to the NWS and in raw data form to the Earth Science Research Laboratory (ESRL) and the participating airline. More than 1,500 aircraft report wind and temperature data with some of these same aircraft also providing turbulence and humidity/water vapor information. In conjunction with avionics manufacturers, each participating airline programs their equipment to provide certain levels of meteorological data. The monitoring and collection of climb, en route, and descent data is accomplished through the aircraft’s Flight Data Acquisition and Monitoring System (FDAMS) and is then transmitted via ACARS. When aircraft are out of ACARS range, reports can be relayed through ASDAR. However, in most cases, the reports are buffered until the aircraft comes within ACARS range, at which point they are downloaded.
There are four types of radars which provide information about precipitation and wind.
- The WSR-88D NEXRAD radar, commonly called Doppler radar, provides in-depth observations that inform surrounding communities of impending weather. Doppler radar has two operational modes: clear air and precipitation. In clear air mode, the radar is in its most sensitive operational mode because a slow antenna rotation allows the radar to sample the atmosphere longer. Images are updated about every 10 minutes in this mode. Precipitation targets provide stronger return signals; therefore, the radar is operated in the Precipitation mode when precipitation is present. A faster antenna rotation in this mode allows images to update at a faster rate, approximately every 4 to 6 minutes. Intensity values in both modes are measured in dBZ (decibels of Z) and are depicted in color on the radar image. [Figure 13-1] Intensities are correlated to intensity terminology (phraseology) for ATC purposes. [Figures 13-2 and 13-3]
- FAA terminal Doppler weather radar (TDWR), installed at some major airports around the country, also aids in providing severe weather alerts and warnings to ATC. Terminal radar ensures pilots are aware of wind shear, gust fronts, and heavy precipitation, all of which are dangerous to arriving and departing aircraft.
- The third type of radar commonly used in the detection of precipitation is the FAA airport surveillance radar. This radar is used primarily to detect aircraft, but it also detects the location and intensity of precipitation, which is used to route aircraft traffic around severe weather in an airport environment.
- Airborne radar is equipment carried by aircraft to locate weather disturbances. The airborne radars generally operate in the C or X bands (around 6 GHz or around 10 GHz, respectively) permitting both penetration of heavy precipitation, required for determining the extent of thunderstorms, and sufficient reflection from less intense precipitation.
Advancement in satellite technologies has recently allowed for commercial use to include weather uplinks. Through the use of satellite subscription services, individuals are now able to receive satellite transmitted signals that provide near realtime weather information for the North American continent.