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How do you measure the temperature of clouds?

The way that it is done by satellite sensors is to detect the wavelength of infrared light emitted by the clouds. The colder the cloud, the less infrared they emit, and the longer the wavelength.

Richard Barrans
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Wyoming

There are thermal sensors and optical sensors that can register the temperature of a portion of a cloud. However, a cloud usually does not have a single temperature. A cloud is a three dimensional dynamic mixture of water vapor, liquid water, and air. So its temperature can change both with position and time.

Vince Calder


Whether from the ground or from a satellite, an instrument that measures the intensity of infrared radiation (which is then translated into temperature) is usually used to measure the temperature of the cloud. However, this temperature is biased by the cloud droplets that are nearest the edge or side of the cloud that is being viewed. For instance, the cloud temperature that is seen by satellite sensors is usually referred to as the temperature of the top of the cloud.

Radiosondes sometimes penetrate clouds, as do commercial aircraft, providing measurements of the interior of clouds. Other remote sensing devices are presently being tested that can provide some information on interior cloud temperatures, but they are not in wide-scale routine use yet.

David R. Cook
Climate Research Section
Environmental Science Division
Argonne National Laboratory

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