Cool! Melbourne weather radar ‘sees’ ship off Florida coast

Strong temperature inversion causes radar beam to bounce back to surface


ORLANDO, Fla. – If you happen to have been glancing at the radar on your Pinpoint Weather App early Thursday morning, you may have seen what looked like a tiny thunderstorm just off the Florida coast.

In reality, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky, so what was going on and why was there a blip on the radar?

What is an inversion?

Air temperature typically decreases with height in the portion of the atmosphere where humans live. During an inversion, temperature increases with height. This is known as a stable atmosphere.

On nights when there is a clear sky and calm winds, warmth generated from the day efficiently radiates back up into the atmosphere. The layer of air just above the surface becomes warmer than air closest to the ground, creating an inversion.

Below is a SKEW-T, plotted data from Thursday morning’s balloon launch from Cape Canaveral. The red line represents temperature. Temperatures increase to the right on this chart.

Temperature profile from Thursday morning showing a strong temperature inversion. (Red line moving right near the bottom of the graph)

Notice right at the bottom, the temperature line abruptly goes to the right, indicating increasing temperatures and a strong inversion, warm air on top of cool in our atmosphere.

Radar works by sending out pulses as it scans the sky. When it runs into something, the pulse comes back. The heavier the rain or bigger the hail in a thunderstorm for example, the brighter the colors will be on the radar display.

When an inversion is present, the pulse from the radar can be redirected from that inversion back to the surface before returning to the radar. Anything on the ground can then be “seen” by the radar. Buildings in a city or wind mills in a field oftentimes show up on a radar during an inversion.

Thursday morning radar shows a ship off the Florida coast. A temperatures inversion allowed the radar to capture the ship.

The lavender color in the radar image above would suggest a small, nasty thunderstorm out at sea, but it was nothing more than a ship passing by Thursday morning.

Pretty cool, right?

About the Author:

Jonathan Kegges joined the News 6 team in June 2019 as the Weekend Morning Meteorologist. Jonathan comes from Roanoke, Virginia where he covered three EF-3 tornadoes and deadly flooding brought on by Hurricanes Florence and Michael.