A cumulonimbus cloud seen from the International Space Station. Credit: Astronaut Tim Peake

A room with a view!

Meteorologists view weather from many different vantage points: from the ground, from aircraft and from satellites. Only recently, however, have we been able to see such a unique look at the weather on Earth: photos by the astronauts on board the International Space Station.

The International Space Station orbits around the Earth about 250 miles high. Moving at approximately 17,150 mph — or five miles per second — it can be visible to the naked eye on clear nights. As it cruises overhead it can look like a slow-moving star or an airplane with a steady, non-blinking light.

On board are astronauts conducting experiments to see what it’s like to live in  space. In between their daily duties and experiments they take a peek out their windows and look down at the planet below, and capture Earth’s natural beauty in ways we’ve never seen before!

This photo of a thunderstorm exploding high into the atmosphere captured by astronaut Tim Peake is straight up wow-worthy. Not only are we viewing the storm from above (rather than our normal view from below), but the photo captures incredible detail of the anatomy of the thunderstorm.

Although the location of this thunderstorm is not known, it’s easy to tell it this one impressive storm likely producing some gnarly weather! First, you can make out the anvil of the storm. It’s smooth and flat. The anvil is caused when rising air hits the top of our lower atmosphere (called the tropopause) where it can’t rise anymore, and so the cloud spreads out. Think of smoke rising and hitting a ceiling. The smoke can’t go through the ceiling, so instead it spreads out horizontally.

The overshooting top of the storm is the bright white, cauliflower-looking clouds bursting through the flat anvil. Overshooting tops represent the part of a thunderstorm where the most intense updrafts can be found. The updraft is so strong in this case, it can actually punch through the tropopause and into the stratosphere.  Overshooting tops can be anywhere from 40,000 feet to 60,000 feet high.

Not only can you make out the entire body of the thunderstorm from end-to-end, but check out the “flanking line” of smaller storms forming off to the left. This is another indicator this was likely a strong to severe thunderstorm, as they often have smaller complexes of thunderstorms that form on their trailing side.

Finally, this vantage point of the storm also tells us the direction the prevailing winds were blowing on earth at the time, which were left to right in the photo.  You can tell by looking at the direction in which the anvil shield is being blown away from the main updraft of the storm. This means the thunderstorm was also moving from left to right across the sky.

One more cool factor? The overshooting tops are SO tall, they are casting shadows on the anvil. #nerdalert

In addition to cumulonimbus thunderstorms, astronauts on board the ISS have captured other weather phenomena including hurricanes, wildfires, lightning strikes and flooding.

Forget the phrase “a bird’s eye view.” I’d rather have an”International Space Station’s view!”

Weather is awesome. #cwgpicoftheweek