Radar observations of individual rain drops in the free atmosphere

Schmidt, J.M., Flatau, P.J., Harasti, P.R., Yates, R.D., Littleton, R., Pritchard, M.S., Fischer, J.M., Fischer, E.J., Kohri, W.J., Vetter, J.R., Richman, S., Baranowski, D.B., Anderson, M.J., Fletcher, E., Lando, D.W.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

109 (24), 2012, 9293–9298, 10.1073/pnas.1117776109

Atmospheric remote sensing has played a pivotal role in the increasingly sophisticated representation of clouds in the numerical models used to assess global and regional climate change. This has been accomplished because the underlying bulk cloud properties can be derived from a statistical analysis of the returned microwave signals scattered by a diverse ensemble comprised of numerous cloud hydrometeors. A new Doppler radar, previously used to track small debris particles shed from the NASA space shuttle during launch, is shown to also have the capacity to detect individual cloud hydrometeors in the free atmosphere. Similar to the traces left behind on film by subatomic particles, larger cloud particles were observed to leave a well-defined radar signature (or streak), which could be analyzed to infer the underlying particle properties. We examine the unique radar and environmental conditions leading to the formation of the radar streaks and develop a theoretical framework which reveals the regulating role of the background radar reflectivity on their observed characteristics. This main expectation from theory is examined through an analysis of the drop properties inferred from radar and in situ aircraft measurements obtained in two contrasting regions of an observed multicellular storm system. The observations are placed in context of the parent storm circulation through the use of the radar’s unique high-resolution waveforms, which allow the bulk and individual hydrometeor properties to be inferred at the same time.