Science in the Skies: Studying Clouds with CitSci

By Sharman Apt Russell | July 7, 2018 7:02 am
By Sharman Apt Russell 
The lazy days of summer are perfect for kicking back and watching the clouds float by. Why not contribute to citizen science from the comfort of your hammock with this cloud-observing project from NASA?

Help NASA understand clouds by reporting your observations with the citizen science project S’Cool 

Image Credit: Elroy Limmer

Image Credit: Elroy Limmer

Clouds are so democratic. You don’t need to be rich or famous or smart or athletic to enjoy the majesty of clouds. You can just look up into the sky wherever you are and be knocked out by their beauty and elegance, their size and changing shapes, their relationship to light–the way clouds glow lit from behind, the way dawn edges them with a fluting of pink and sunset colors them orange and gold. Throughout the day, you can watch clouds billow and mass, flat-bottomed ships sailing and crashing, cloud architecture, cloud turrets, cloud towers, cloud streets, weird streaks, wisps, tails, cumulus, cumulonimbus, stratus, cirrus, mamma, virga. On some days, you stand transfixed under a cloudscape so continuously grand and mystical that the mind eventually loses interest. You sigh and continue on your errands. What’s for lunch?

Citizen scientists study clouds for the program S’Cool (Students’ Clouds Observations On Line) developed and run by NASA. Participants time their observations of clouds to the very moment a weather instrument is passing overhead and observing the same clouds. This helps confirm the accuracy of an important network of satellites orbiting Earth known as CERES for Clouds and Earth Radiant Energy Systems. At S’Cool, the scientists explain, “The cloud properties we are seeking are cloud type, cloud cover, and cloud thickness.” Knowing more about clouds is increasingly important as we struggle to understand how climate change affects clouds and what kind of cloud cover increases or decreases global warming.

S’Cool is wonderfully user-friendly. Anyone can participate in S’Cool as a Rover Observer or individual citizen scientist, although the project is more specifically designed for students and teachers and includes hand-outs, lesson plans, and classroom activities. Since its beginning in 1997, S’Cool has received over 125,000 observations from young people in 83 countries around the world.

As a Rover Observer, I log into the S’Cool website, determine my current longitude and latitude with the help of a very S’Cool map, and am emailed a schedule for the next two weeks of satellite activity over that location–when I should go out and observe clouds. I can watch clouds from anywhere, but my preferred spot is the front porch of my house in southwestern New Mexico. Typically, NASA’s weather satellites pass overhead here at least six times a day.

At any one of those overpass times, I walk out now in my front yard with a printed report form. My job is to check for cloud cover, sky color, sky visibility, contrails, high level clouds, middle level clouds, and low level clouds. In these last three categories, I will further note cloud type (cirrus, altostratus, stratocumulus?), cloud cover (isolated, scattered, broken?), and visual opacity (opaque, translucent, transparent?). S’Cool provides plenty of information to help me decide. Later I transfer my data into an online report on the S’Cool website.

For my first observation with S’Cool, there was not a cloud in the bright blue New Mexican sky. So—that was easy!

Days later, a storm system moved into the rural valley where I live. Low level nimbostratus clouds were everywhere, mostly opaque with patches of translucence. In a few days, I was recording the rippling layers of middle level altostratus, between 2000 to 6000 meters, the prelude to another storm. Over the next week, I noted as well the wisps of high cirrus clouds, over 6000 meters, made of ice crystals instead of the water droplets of middle and low level clouds. For each observation I sent S’Cool, the program sent back an email with a chart showing how my observation had matched with the satellite’s observation. This was helpful and motivating.

Like most citizen scientists–and scientists, too–I bring a personal relationship to the subjects I study. When I look up at the sky, I sometimes think about my father, a test pilot who flew and crashed the experimental X-2 in 1956, going three times the speed of sound—briefly the fastest man on Earth. Captain Milburn Apt died when I was two years old. Although I don’t know very much about this man, I do know that he loved clouds. On home movies taken over the Grand Canyon, he did not pause long over his wife and two daughters before panning that new 1950s movie camera across the clouds billowing in the Arizona sky, clouds he loved from many hours of flight in all kinds of airplanes, crop dusters and F150 Starfighters and B-50s, clouds where he felt completely at home.

I have always loved clouds, too, and I am grateful that my father and I share this connection. Clouds make me feel grateful in general—those masses of white cumulus sailing in a cerulean blue, their edges so crisp they look painted on. Or the birth of a thunderstorm, when the great expanding pillars first begin to rise higher and higher and higher. Or just a single wispy cloud in a winter sky, like a friendly doodle. With my data sheets from NASA, I now have even more reason to look up and study clouds. And that’s entirely a good thing.

Check out more citizen science projects through the SciStarter Project Finder!

Editors’ note: this story originally ran on the SciStarter blog network on March 15, 2016.

Sharman Apt Russell is a nature and science writer based in New Mexico, United States. Her topics include citizen science, living in place, public lands grazing, archaeology, flowers, butterflies, hunger, and Pantheism.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Citizen Science
  • OWilson

    I always say that if clouds appeared only once in a generation, the entire world would stop, and gaze up in wonder!

    Nature’s tapestry,!

    Or, as NOAA says, just the most abundant and poorly understood greenhouse gas, that threatens our climate! :)

    • Mike Richardson

      NOAA says no such thing about clouds threatening our climate. Next lie, please. :)

      • OWilson

        Here’s NOAA, speaking for themselves, Mikey!

        “Water Vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, which is why it is addressed here first. However, changes in its concentration is also considered to be a result of climate feedbacks related to the warming of the atmosphere rather than a direct result of industrialization. The feedback loop in which water is involved is critically important to projecting future climate change, but as yet is still fairly poorly measured and understood”

        • Mike Richardson

          Post the full article, in proper context, please. Do they call water vapor clouds a threat to the climate, as you stated? No, they do not.

          • OWilson

            Your continued reluctance to follow the simple numerous links provided to you is obviously why you remain willfully uneducated in the very subjects you hold such dogmatic opinions. :)

            But here ya go, Mikey!

            The full article from NCDC-NOAA-GOV

            “”Water Vapor

            Water Vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, which is why it is addressed here first. However, changes in its concentration is also considered to be a result of climate feedbacks related to the warming of the atmosphere rather than a direct result of industrialization. The feedback loop in which water is involved is critically important to projecting future climate change, but as yet is still fairly poorly measured and understood.

            As the temperature of the atmosphere rises, more water is evaporated from ground storage (rivers, oceans, reservoirs, soil). Because the air is warmer, the absolute humidity can be higher (in essence, the air is able to ‘hold’ more water when it’s warmer), leading to more water vapor in the atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, the higher concentration of water vapor is then able to absorb more thermal IR energy radiated from the Earth, thus further warming the atmosphere. The warmer atmosphere can then hold more water vapor and so on and so on. This is referred to as a ‘positive feedback loop’. However, huge scientific uncertainty exists in defining the extent and importance of this feedback loop. As water vapor increases in the atmosphere, more of it will eventually also condense into clouds, which are more able to reflect incoming solar radiation (thus allowing less energy to reach the Earth’s surface and heat it up). The future monitoring of atmospheric processes involving water vapor will be critical to fully understand the feedbacks in the climate system leading to global climate change. As yet, though the basics of the hydrological cycle are fairly well understood, we have very little comprehension of the complexity of the feedback loops. Also, while we have good atmospheric measurements of other key greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, we have poor measurements of global water vapor, so it is not certain by how much atmospheric concentrations have risen in recent decades or centuries, though satellite measurements, combined with balloon data and some in-situ ground measurements indicate generally positive trends in global water vapor.””

          • Mike Richardson

            LOL! You just can’t admit you said something that isn’t supported by the facts, can you? As we both know, the article refers to water vapor as part of the feedback loop, but that is a poorly understood factor. Carbon dioxide, and other gases emitted by human activity, are better understood, and are driving the current climate change. Whether you lack the reading comprehension skills to absorb that fact, or are again deliberately and dishonestly distorting those words, your initial comment remains ignorant.

          • OWilson


            ” Using recent NASA satellite data, researchers have estimated more precisely than ever the heat-trapping effect of water in the air, validating the role of the gas as a critical component of climate change”.

            Water vapor, the most abundant greenhouse gas, is a “critical component of climate change”

            Get it yet? :)

          • Mike Richardson

            “threatens our climate.”. Clouds. LOL. Keep twisting away. 😂

          • OWilson

            Again, as usual, you placed quotation marks inappropriately.


            “Water vapor (clouds) is a critical component of climate change”

            Twist that, Mikey!

            But the sun is up and it’s time for my daily walk on my tropical beach. Hope to see a lot of that “most abundant greenhouse gas” (NOAA), even if it is “a critical component of climate change” (NASA).

            Bye for now! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Must have been a very short walk, since you went from here to the political blog in just a few minutes. And even more interestingly, you posed as an American on that blog, despite the carefully crafted persona of a British expat/Canadian citizen/Dominican resident you adopt here. You’re a fraud, Wilson, as I’ve long suspected. Thanks for confirming that for me. Enjoy the clouds, wherever you actually are. I think you’re done here. 😁

          • OWilson

            Again for the record:

            Your delusional personal beliefs aside, my life is
            relatively open book! I am a recently retired gentleman, born in the U.K., Raised a family and ran a successful Project Management Consulting business in Canada, and taught school, by invitation in the U.K. and Eastern Europe.

            Now enjoying an interesting and very satisfying life with wonderful locals in the Dominican Republic.

            Every morning, from my DR paradise, I check my emails, check in here, and have a little fun with the trolls in The Hill (my one admitted vice :), before I immediately (within a few minutes anyway) take off for the whole day. You can check my timeline, it is completely public.

            I may use the collective “we” and “go Trump!” from time to time with the trolls, but have never represented myself as an American, or Republican, and have gone to great pains to explain this here and anywhere it is relevant!

            But, I know that conspiracy theories, are much more palatable to you than the simple truth.

            Let’s see :)

            You have called me a closet fascist, an alcoholic, a mentally incompetent, with a duped wife and family who are about to have me committed to a sanatorium, and and just here, an ignorant fraud:)

            You are either a uniquely gifted clairvoyant, or a just another disgruntled government employed, Bernie supporter, which you admitted to here, and an obvious troll, who ends all threads like this one with ad hominem insults when reason and logic fail you.

            Since I am not a clairvoyant, I must let the readers decide!

            Have a nice day, Mikey! I’m off on my 2 to 3 mile daily walk in my tropical retirement DR paradise.

            (As I’ve said before, there is a simple way to check out the truth of my statements, but it involves a little wager, and you have been so far reluctant to take up the challenge! Maybe this time?)


          • Mike Richardson

            I’ve heard some pretty weak defenses of dishonesty from you, but this “collective ‘we'” garbage truly takes the cake. When you say “We are the strongest economy in the world,” and you are not part of that ” We” — America — you are deliberately misrepresenting yourself. Though it’s hardly surprising that an “unabashed Trump supporter” would share his well-documented disregard for truth and ethics. And I see no reason no reason to take any wager with you, as a man who will lie so readily can certainly be expected to cheat at many things in life, just like his hero.

            But I do agree that I’ve wasted too many words on you up to this point. I’ve made my point many times over about how little credibility you have, as here. So, I think from here on out simply downvoting your rants and upvoting the comments of those willing to take you to task should suffice. Much more efficient. Good day, Wilson. 😉

          • OWilson

            Have a nice day, Mikey! :)


Citizen Science Salon

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Citizen Science Salon, brought to you by SciStarter, is where science enthusiasts can join forces with top researchers. We'll feature weekly collaborative, crowdsourced, and DIY research projects that relate to what you're reading about in Discover, so you can take science into your own hands. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

About Sharman Apt Russell

Sharman Apt Russell's recent nonfiction Diary of a Citizen Scientist (Oregon State University Press, 2014) won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, whose recipients include Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. Sharman celebrates citizen science in the pine forests and Chihuahuan desert of southwestern New Mexico where she teaches writing at Western New Mexico University, Silver City, NM as well as Antioch University in Los Angeles, CA. Her dozen published books have been translated into a dozen languages and her awards include a Rockefeller Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and the Writers at Work Award. Her eco-fiction includes the young adult Teresa of the New World (Yucca Publishing, 2015) and the science fiction Knocking on Heaven’s Door (Yucca Publishing, 2016). For more information, go to


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