Revolutionary Technology Provides New Perspective on Cyclones

A tropical storm cyclone

Aerial view of a tropical cyclone.

Cosmic rays used to track and visualize tropical cyclones open the eye of the storm.

For the first time, high-energy muon particles created in the atmosphere have allowed researchers to study the structures of storms in a way that conventional visualization techniques, such as satellite imaging, cannot. The level of detail in this new method could help researchers simulate storms and related weather effects. It can also lead to earlier warning systems that are more accurate.

It is hard not to notice the many news reports of severe storms that have occurred in various regions of the world and are often attributed to climate change. While weather forecasting and early warning systems have always been important, the current increase in storm activity seems to make them especially important. A team of scientists led by Professor Hiroyuki Tanaka of the University of Tokyo Muographix has developed a new method for identifying and analyzing tropical cyclones by exploiting a quirk of particle physics that happens above our heads all the time.

Cyclone muograph

The redder areas are low pressure warm air and the green areas are higher pressure cooler air. The cyclone in this picture is about 15 kilometers long. A line drawing that zooms in on the shape overlays the visualization data. Credit: 2022 Hiroyuki KM Tanaka

“You’ve probably seen overhead photographs of cyclones that show swirling cloud eddies. But I doubt if you’ve ever seen a cyclone from the side, maybe as computer graphics, but never as actual received sensor data,” Tanaka said. “We offer the world the opportunity to do just that, to visualize large-scale weather phenomena such as cyclones from a 3D perspective and also in real time. We do this using a technique called muography, which you can think of as an X-ray, but to see really huge things.

Muography creates X-ray photographs of large objects such as volcanoes, pyramids, bodies of water and, for the first time, atmospheric weather systems. Scintillators are special sensors that are connected together to form a grid, similar to the pixels in a smartphone camera sensor. However, these scintillators do not see optical light. They see muons produced in the atmosphere when cosmic rays from deep space collide with atoms.

Scintillator sensors

These are sensors used to detect weakly interacting muon particles. Each scintillator sensor is extremely dense to maximize the chance that a muon will interact with it. Arranged in a grid, the sensors can form a raw image of everything the muons have missed to reach the sensor. Credit: 2022 Hiroyuki KM Tanaka

Muons are special because they pass through matter easily without scattering as much as other types of particles. But the small amount they deviate as they pass through solid, liquid or even gaseous matter can reveal details about their journey between the atmosphere and the sensors. By capturing a large number of muons passing through something, an image of it can be reconstructed.

“We successfully imaged the vertical profile of the cyclone, and it revealed density differences that are critical to understanding how cyclones work,” Tanaka said. “The images show cross-sections of a cyclone that passed through Kagoshima Prefecture in western Japan. I was surprised to clearly see that it had a low-density warm core that contrasted dramatically with the high-pressure cold exterior. There is absolutely no way to get such data with traditional pressure sensors and photography .

The detector used by the researchers has a field of view of 90 degrees, but Tanaka envisions combining similar sensors to create hemispherical, and therefore omnidirectional, observation stations that could be placed along the coastline. They could potentially see cyclones as far as 300 kilometers away. Although satellites already track these storms, the additional detail provided by muography could improve forecasts of approaching storms.

“One of the next steps for us now will be to improve this technique to detect and visualize storms of different scales,” Tanaka said. “This could mean better modeling and forecasting not only for larger storm systems, but also for more local weather patterns.”

Reference: Hiroyuki KM Tanaka, Jon Gluyas, Marko Holma, Jari Joutsenvaara, Pasi Kuusiniemi, Giovanni Leone, Domenico Lo Presti, Jun Matsushima, László Oláh, Sara Steigerwald, Lee F. Ilya Usoskin, Stepan Poluyanov, Dezso Varga and Yusuke Yokota, 2022 October 6, Scientific reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-20039-4


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