Weather Folklore: Can shooting stars help forecast the weather?

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A file photo of a meteor (Getty Images)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Can high flying shooting stars actually predict future weather patterns at the surface? I’ve been researching different weather folklores and where they came from over the past few weeks. This one quickly captured my attention and with World Space Week last week, I thought it would be a good topic to tie everything together. In this episode of Exploring the Atmosphere with Alysa, let’s find out if shooting stars and weather forecasting are connected.

This folklore dates back to when sailors used stars as a compass to navigate the open waters, like following the north star. They also used shooting stars to determine wind direction for the next day by observing the direction it flew in. But can this folklore be true and unlock the secrets to creating better, more precise forecasts in the future? One Dutch scientist studying physics seems to think so.

Real Time Perseid from Sept. 8, 2018. Bright meteors and dark night skies made this year’s Perseid meteor shower a great time for a weekend campout. And while packing away their equipment, skygazers at a campsite in the mountains of southern Germany found at least one more reason to linger under the stars, witnessing this brief but colorful flash with their own eyes. Presented as a 50 frame gif, the two second long video was captured during the morning twilight of August 12. In real time it shows the development of the typical green train of a bright Perseid meteor. A much fainter Perseid is just visible farther to the right. Plowing through Earth’s atmosphere at 60 kilometers per second, Perseids are fast enough to excite the characteristic green emission of atomic oxygen at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so. Credit: Till Credner, AlltheSky.com

Shooting Stars can predict the weather??

Physicist Rosmarie De Wit from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) studied how shooting stars not only determine what weather will be like at the surface in the days to come but can create longer and better forecast models in 2014.

There are 5 different layers of earth’s atmosphere: Exosphere, Thermosphere, Mesosphere, Stratosphere, and Troposphere (highest to lowest). The weather we experience on the ground and the data put into forecast models occurs in the troposphere and extends as high as 10 km above the surface. Meteors and shooting stars burn through the mesosphere. This was where Rosmarie was looking for answers. The mesosphere starts about 50 km above the surface.

National Weather Service Jetream – Layers of the Atmosphere

According to Norwegian SciTech News at NTNU, De Wit’s goal was to understand how ALL parts of the atmosphere work together to help create more accurate long-term weather forecasts. Finding weather instruments to reach that high of altitude is not only costly but we don’t have a lot of experience with it. Weather balloons only travel as highs as 39 km before bursting and satellites fly too high above the mesosphere. So De Wit had to come up with another idea. That’s where shooting stars come into play.

However, she didn’t study ones we can easily see with our own naked eye. Instead, she looked at much smaller ones to watch how their fiery tails spread out by using radio waves. Acting much like a radar picking up rain drops, radio waves would be sent out to hit the tiny particles in the meteor’s tail and send the data back. Meteor tails only last about 2 seconds in the air before disappearing.

De Wit noticed how fast the tail moved and disappeared correlated with temperature and wind speed. The warmer the temperature at that height in the mesosphere, the faster the meteor tail would disappear. Radio waves also measured the wind speeds at the high altitude by checking how fast the shooting star’s fiery tail moved. Sending out radio waves allows us to know what is happening in that section of the atmosphere.

Photo courtesy MATTHIAS BALK/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

While all weather occurs in the troposphere, differences in temperature and wind speed do occur throughout all Earth’s atmospheric layers. For instance, in the stratosphere, temperatures increase with height and in the mesosphere, temperature decreases in height. But is there a connection with weather occurring at higher altitudes in the atmosphere and weather occurring at the surface?

As of right now, it’s inconclusive. While we can connect a few dots in between layers, it’s hard to say if some or any weather (winds or temperature) in the mesosphere impacts the weather at the surface. The highest point in the troposphere that we look at for weather patterns is the jet stream. At 10-12 km high, it follows boundaries of cold and warm air. At 50 km high as the mesosphere begins, there are no weather systems – no rain, storms, areas of high and low pressure like we see here at the surface.

Watching shooting stars race across the sky is always fascinating and fun to see. Next time you see a shooting star, watch its fiery tail and try your best to forecast the weather occurring at that altitude and how it will impact our weather at the surface. Then, watch the forecast to see if your findings are correct!

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