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Changes in Cloud-Ceiling Heights and Frequencies over the United States since the Early 1950s

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  • 1 NOAA/National Climatic Data Center, and STG, Inc., Asheville, North Carolina
  • | 2 NOAA/National Climatic Data Center, Asheville, North Carolina
  • | 3 NOAA/Air Resources Laboratory, Silver Spring, Maryland
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Abstract

U.S. weather stations operated by NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) have undergone significant changes in reporting and measuring cloud ceilings. Stations operated by the Department of Defense have maintained more consistent reporting practices. By comparing cloud-ceiling data from 223 NWS first-order stations with those from 117 military stations, and by further comparison with changes in physically related parameters, inhomogeneous records, including all NWS records based only on automated observing systems and the military records prior to the early 1960s, were identified and discarded. Data from the two networks were then used to determine changes in daytime ceiling height (the above-ground height of the lowest sky-cover layer that is more than half opaque) and ceiling occurrence frequency (percentage of total observations that have ceilings) over the contiguous United States since the 1950s.

Cloud-ceiling height in the surface–3.6-km layer generally increased during 1951–2003, with more significant changes in the period after the early 1970s and in the surface–2-km layer. These increases were mostly over the western United States and in the coastal regions. No significant change was found in surface–3.6-km ceiling occurrence during 1951–2003, but during the period since the early 1970s, there is a tendency for a decrease in frequency of ceilings with height below 3.6 km. Cloud-ceiling heights above 3.6 km have shown no significant changes in the past 30 yr, but there has been an increase in frequency, consistent with the increase in ceiling height below 3.6 km. For the surface–3.6-km layer, physically consistent changes were identified as related to changes in ceiling height and frequency of occurrence. This included reductions in precipitation frequency related to low ceiling frequency, and surface warming and decreasing relative humidity accompanying increasing ceiling heights during the past 30 yr.

Corresponding author address: Dian J. Seidel, NOAA/Air Resources Laboratory (R/ARL), 1315 East–West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Email: Dian.Seidel@noaa.gov

Abstract

U.S. weather stations operated by NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) have undergone significant changes in reporting and measuring cloud ceilings. Stations operated by the Department of Defense have maintained more consistent reporting practices. By comparing cloud-ceiling data from 223 NWS first-order stations with those from 117 military stations, and by further comparison with changes in physically related parameters, inhomogeneous records, including all NWS records based only on automated observing systems and the military records prior to the early 1960s, were identified and discarded. Data from the two networks were then used to determine changes in daytime ceiling height (the above-ground height of the lowest sky-cover layer that is more than half opaque) and ceiling occurrence frequency (percentage of total observations that have ceilings) over the contiguous United States since the 1950s.

Cloud-ceiling height in the surface–3.6-km layer generally increased during 1951–2003, with more significant changes in the period after the early 1970s and in the surface–2-km layer. These increases were mostly over the western United States and in the coastal regions. No significant change was found in surface–3.6-km ceiling occurrence during 1951–2003, but during the period since the early 1970s, there is a tendency for a decrease in frequency of ceilings with height below 3.6 km. Cloud-ceiling heights above 3.6 km have shown no significant changes in the past 30 yr, but there has been an increase in frequency, consistent with the increase in ceiling height below 3.6 km. For the surface–3.6-km layer, physically consistent changes were identified as related to changes in ceiling height and frequency of occurrence. This included reductions in precipitation frequency related to low ceiling frequency, and surface warming and decreasing relative humidity accompanying increasing ceiling heights during the past 30 yr.

Corresponding author address: Dian J. Seidel, NOAA/Air Resources Laboratory (R/ARL), 1315 East–West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Email: Dian.Seidel@noaa.gov

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