Story at a glance

  • A new study reveals the coldest temperature ever recorded by a satellite captured during a thunderstorm.
  • The technology that makes such readings possible is relatively new but developing quickly.
  • Researchers say extreme weather events are likely to be more common as a result of climate change.

How cold is super-cold? When you're on top of the clouds during a thunderstorm, almost 162 degrees Fahrenheit below freezing (or minus 111 degrees Celsius) is about as cold as it gets, according to an analysis of a storm in the tropical West Pacific in late 2018.

What took so long? Well, the record-low cloud temperature, revealed in a study published March 22, was measured using a Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) at an altitude of more than 15 miles above sea level. The temperatures at the tropopause, or the boundary between the Earth's stratosphere and troposphere, measured during a thunderstorm on Dec. 29, 2018, were the coldest ever recorded by satellite, according to researchers Simon Proud and Scott Bachmeir. 

"It's called an overshooting top," Proud told BBC, referring to the top of a tropical storm cloud system, which forms an anvil shape when it reaches the tropopause. 


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Of course, the authors acknowledge, the VIIRS sensor, which measured the temperatures in this storm, has "improved spatial resolution afforded by recent sensor developments" made more recently than 15 years ago, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) first began collecting data. 

Still, the MODIS data shows that cold cloud tops have become more common since 2004, with exceptionally cold clouds in late 2018. So where does that fit in with climate change? 

"Over the last 20 years, it seems these super-cold thunderstorms are becoming a little bit more common. It's interesting that in this part of the world, the tropopause is actually getting warmer, so we might expect to see warmer clouds, not colder clouds, which likely means we're seeing more extreme storms as we're getting even bigger overshoots than we used to,” Proud told BBC. 


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Published on Mar 30, 2021