Category Archives: Backscatter Profiles

Ceilometers and Snow

Like Rain, Snow produces quite high levels of backscatter.   But the raindrops and snow flakes have very different shapes, velocities and surface area to mass ratios.  More expensive ceilometers may have the ability to discriminate between snow and rain.

A typical LIDAR curtain plot for cloud appears below:

snow plot

Ref: University of Utah Atmospheric Science

The snow is coming from a cloud at around 500m .  The cloud and snow appear to extinguish the returns from higher layers,  if any.   Some of the snow is light and evaporates before it gets to ground level.  ( low level green return )

Work has been done to try to determine snowfall rate from Lidar returns.  According to Ed Eloranta of the University of Wisconsin Madison,  the technique requires radar and  does not require any knowledge of the snowflake shape.

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Ceilometers for Dust Storm Profiling

Sydney Dust Storm 2009

A wall of dust stretched from northern Queensland to the southern tip of eastern Australia on the morning of September 23, 2009, The storm, the worst in 70 years, led to cancelled or delayed flights, traffic problems, and health issues,  The concentration of particles in the air reached 15,000 micrograms per cubic meter in New South Wales during the storm, A normal day sees a particle concentration 10-20 micrograms per cubic meter.

Work on the use of Ceilometers for analysis of  that  Dust Storm is decribed in the paper:

Laser ceilometer measurements of Australian dust storm highlight need for reassessment of atmospheric dust plume loads      By Hamish McGowan and Joshua Soderholm

Among the more interesting information in this paper was the curtain plot showing the increase  in backscatter when the wall of the duststorm hit,  the very high concentration around ground level and the vertical extent of the dust.  The maximum vertical extent of this plot is 1500 metres ,  or approx 5000 ft.


(Curtain Plot showing onset of the Dust Storm and estimated particle Concentration from paper: Laser ceilometer measurements of Australian dust storm highlight need for reassessment of atmospheric dust plume loads      By Hamish McGowan and Joshua Soderholm )

Ceilometers like the 8200-CHS are suitable for this type of work,  where dust storms are experienced regularly,  such as the Harmattan in sub saharan Africa,  the Churgui in Morocco,  the Khamasin in Egypt, the Shamal in Iraq or the Kali Andhi in India

High Altitude Clouds

High Altitude clouds  fall into 2 categories,

  1. Those with  a low base and vertical development are Cumulonimbus and Towering Cumulus.     At the base these are water clouds,    so the ceilometer only “sees”  a few hundred feet into the cloud.
  2. Those with a high base,  including Cirrus, Cirrostratus and Cirrocumulus and Altostratus

The Cirrus cloud family are composed of Ice Crystals,  and are very often “optically thin”and they have low backscatter coefficients,  so are difficult to detect with ceilometers,  because the laser pulse energy is limited to eye safe levels.

Altostratus may be composed of ice crystals. In some ice crystal altostratus, very thin, rapidly disappearing horizontal sheets of water droplets appear at random. The sizes of the ice crystals in the cloud tended to increase as altitude decreased. However, close to the bottom of the cloud, the particles decreased in size again

Altostratus cloud with a water phase  may have a strong backscatter signal and can be picked up as in the case below

17000 FT 26-11 TREVISO

Alto stratus Cloud at 17,000 ft

Ref 1 : Wikipedia : Alto Stratus entry.

Ref 2.  Wikipedia Cirrus Cloud entry.

Single Lens vs Dual Lens Ceilometer

All ceilometers which are set up for  long range cloud height measurement are “far sighted”,  having a blind region in front of the unit.  This is shown in the diagram below ,  and the height of the blind spot Rio is heavily dependent on the axial separation d ,  the beam divergence and the telescope angle of acceptance.  The signal is maximised at the full overlap distance Rovf as shown below.

dual overlap

Since most ceilometers are designed for the best acheivable  signal to noise ratio,  the telescope angle of acceptance is set to the limit of  focal length,  sensor active area and lens aberration.

The single lens designs,  such as the CL51 and 8200-CHS feature a low  value of d and thus a much reduced overlap height

Single lens overlap geometry

There are a number of different optical arrangements to enable the reduction of d to zero or to a small value to minimise the overlap height.

One form of “single lens” Ceilometer,  using a “split lens ” approach (reference (Vande Hey, J. ;  Coupland, J. ; Richards, J. ; Sandford, A. )

It is worth noting that earlier designs of dual lens ceilometers actually utilised the blind spot to reduce the required dynamic range to prevent overload of the return signal processing channel, and greatly reduce optical  crosstalk in the instrument itself ( known as To crosstalk)

Later ceilometers using the single lens optics,  such as the MTECH SYSTEMS  8200-CHS feature special techniques to minimise optical crosstalk and very high dynamic range analog to digital converters to enable detection of fog close to the ground without saturation of the signal

Why tilt a ceilometer?

A slight tilting of the ceilometer gives  better performance in rain.

Rain drops tend to flatten as they fall.  See the NASA explanation for this 

Consequently, when aligned vertically the backscatter from raindrops may be sufficiently high to cause difficult in resolving the cloud base above the rain.

However when tilted, the backscatter of laser pulses by the raindrops is reduced .

In heavy rain even a tilted ceilometer cannot resolve the cloud base since the integrated backscatter quickly dominates and prevents further penetration up to the cloudbase,  while extinction in the return path also starts to extinguish the return signal..

Please refer to the screen below.


These tests were carried out during light rain.  The tilted unit shows resolvable cloud base while the untilted unit reverts to vertical visibility.

Cloud Types: Cumulo Nimbus and AltoStratus

Stratus clouds,  irrespective of altitude have a more or less constant and solid base ,  indicating stable layers in the atmosphere and lack of thermal activity.

By contrast the Cumulo Nimbus cloud betrays a high degree of vertical motion of the atmosphere and thermal activity.  Cumulus congestus and Towering cumulus display a moderate degree of vertical extent

In the curtain plot below,  the classic rapid change of cloud level characteristic of Cb cloud can be seen between 19.00 and 23.00 hours.  After that time the cloud base solidifies and rises to 6500 ft

Cb cloud gives way to As cloud

Cb cloud gives way to Ac cloud

Ceilometer Signal to Noise.

There are a great many factors effecting the performance of ceilometers,  but the key 2 issues for any given cloud volume backscatter coefficient  are:

  1. The eye safe limit of the ceilometer .  Infra Red Ceilometers must operate as Class 1M lasers  which limits the energy density of the beam.
  2. The noise level.      The inherent noise level of the ceilometer is the ultimate determinant of the signal to noise ratio which enables the ceilometer to discriminate  cloud boundary.

The 8200-CHS has an extremely low level of inherent noise,   which is tested for each ceilometer and is recorded as per the backscatter profile below.


The external source of noise is the shot noise of the scattered and or direct solar radiation within the spectral acceptance of the sensor .   The laser operates around 910 nm and the filtering can only limit the “out of  band”  component of the solar noise spectrum.  The ceilometer will thus t\detect cloud at higher altitudes at night.